NEW HAVEN — Down three touchdowns and with his starting quarterback sitting on the bench injured, Wilbur Cross coach John Acquavita admitted he was in damage control mode Thursday morning, just attempting to salvage something out of the final moments of what was a solid season for the Governors.
But once the assessment was completed, he noticed maybe there might be reason to hope for more.
Three Jasiah Barnes touchdowns and a wild celebration later, Wilbur Cross scored the final 26 points of the contest to win the Elm City Bowl 26-20 at Bowen Field, its first victory in the series in three years and just its third this decade.
“I’m not going to lie, I was searching for respectability in the third quarter there,” Acquavita said. “You know what, though. I felt we were tough enough to maybe make some things happen. Then when the odds evened out, I thought if we could hold on and not give up anything big, we do have a 1,000-yard running back that’s a pretty good player, a kid going to UConn (Travis Jones), Rickqueal Warren, who gets no credit, and all these other players that won six games in this league.”
The game began as a defensive struggle, but a muffed punt midway through the first quarter gave Hillhouse (6-4) great field position and it took advantage with a 19-yard touchdown run from Quintus Reid for a 7-0 lead. But it was the next series that changed the game dramatically for the first time. Cross quarterback Sal Barnebei — who was also injured two weeks ago against Hand — hurt his knee on a 9-yard run and did not return.
The Governors’ defense tried to keep them in it, but Reid connected with Neal Eley on a perfectly executed 41-yard screen pass for a TD in the second quarter, and found Terron Mallory for a 23-yard scoring strike on the first play of the third quarter, giving the Academics a seemingly insurmountable 20-0 advantage.
The game took another twist, however, when Reid had to leave by ambulance after hurting his knee returning a punt. He was also Hillhouse’s punter, and when the Acs lined up to punt minutes later, backup Terrell Watts hit the ball only a yard or two off the side of his foot. Cross’ Nashawn Jinks was happy to scoop it up and run 13 yards for the Governors’ first score of the day and change the momentum of the proceedings dramatically.
From that point, Barnes — who was held to just 21 yards on 10 carries through three quarters — exploded. A 56-yard run with 6:59 left cut Hillhouse’s lead to 20-12, and then after a Hillhouse fumble he was in the end zone again less than two minutes later, this time running in the conversion to tie the game.
“I didn’t want to go out like that in my last game,” UConn-bound senior Jones said. “Our O-line just had to do a better job and we knew we could do it. It’s awesome.”
Hillhouse then embarked on a long drive that looked like it might be a game-winner, but Cross (7-3) held firm on 4th-and-2 from the 17. On the next play, Barnes raced 83 yards down the left sideline for the winning touchdown with 1:39 left, setting off a wild celebration among the Cross faithful and on the sideline. In all, Barnes finished with 195 yards rushing on 17 carries, 174 on just seven attempts in the fourth quarter.
“For the first two years at Cross, freshman and sophomore year, they beat us pretty bad,” Barnes said. “So I was tired of losing to them. Every guy on the field, all 11 guys, did their job at the end, and it’s great.”
As it turned out, defending Class M champion Hillhouse had already been eliminated from the postseason due to results elsewhere, but this one was a tough way to end the season.
“No excuses,” Hillhouse coach Reggie Lytle said. “You play with what you have. We coach everybody up all week. First team, second team, third team, everyone should be ready. We have to play four quarters of football against a good team like that, and we didn’t.”
Meanwhile, it was the opposite emotions on the other sideline. Barnes and Jones, respectively, were named the offensive and defensive Most Valuable Players for Cross, while Jaavon Brown and Greg Chambers captured those honors for Hillhouse.
“I am shocked, because it was a mind-boggling comeback,” Acquavita said. “But I’m not surprised at senior leadership stepping up for our team. This was a much-needed win for our program and these kids deserve it.”