WORCESTER, MASS. >> Xavier had the game won.
Coach Sean Marinan thought so, the Xavier team thought so, and if a poll could have been taken, odds are just about everyone in the crowd of 1,000 believed Xavier had the win secured
They all thought that because with just 3 minutes and 20 seconds left in the game, Xavier capped a furious second half rally to come from 13 down to take an eight-point lead.
The Falcons couldn’t hold it.
St. John’s-Shrewsbury, led by its quarterback Tim Cassidy, struck back on a 61-yard touchdown strike to Nick Pallotta with 2:42 left. Cassidy (16-for-28, 230 yards), then hit Cam Lucey over the middle for the tying two-point conversion and in a heartbeat, the game was tied.
Then, after stopping the Falcons on its possession in overtime, Cassidy ran it in from four yards out to complete a stunning 34-28 win and hand Xavier (2-2) a shattering defeat.
“We just made some mistakes at the wrong time,” Marinan said. “I thought we had the game won, but a mistake by our corner allowed the kid to catch the pass and get away for that touchdown.
“Then in overtime, we missed a blocking assignment that cost us when we had second down at the three.”
The villain of the piece for Xavier — and the hero for St. John’s — was Cassidy. He threw for three touchdowns, ran for the other two, and threw for two crucial two-point conversions.
“He was a handful,” Marinan said. “But they didn’t do anything we didn’t expect. I thought we maybe had some nerves early what with the travel and all. At halftime we challenged the kids to play instead of just getting hit. We told them to give it back and I thought we played much better in the second half.”
Down 20-7 at the half, the Falcons rammed the ball down the Pioneers’ throat on its first possession, driving 70 yards on eight running plays with Collin McCarthy (20 carries, 95 yards) scoring from 11 yards out.
Xavier scored again on a drive set up by an interception by Ben Costello late in the third quarter. This time Xavier drove 58 yards in 12 plays — again all on the ground — with McCarthy scoring on a 5-yard run. With Dominick Reynolds’ PAT, Xavier led 21-20 with 9:08 left in the game.
After stopping the Pioneers on fourth down at the Xavier 40-yard line, the Falcons mounted what looked for all the world like a game-winning drive. They moved the ball — yet again, on the ground — to the St. John’s two-yard line.
On fourth and goal at the two, McCarthy surprised the ballpark — including the Pioneers — with a little pass to a wide-open Parker Rowley in the left side of the end zone for the touchdown. With Reynolds’ kick, the Falcons looked home free at 28-20.
On St. John’s second play from scrimmage, Cassidy hit Pallotta in the left flat, he faked out one defender with a nifty move, and ran down the near sideline, diving into the end zone for the touchdown. With the conversion, the game was tied at 28-28.
St. John’s coach John Andreoli then made a mysterious call in kicking onside. Xavier covered the kick at midfield and moved to the St. John’s 34-yard line where it faced fourth and six.
McCarthy got five.
In overtime, St. John’s won the toss and opted to play defense. Given the ball on the 10-yard line, Cunningham (17 carries, 75 yards) ran seven yards to the three. But on second down — here was that missed assignment — Cunningham was nailed for a two-yard loss.
He got a yard back on third down, but on fourth and goal from the four, McCarthy ran left, had nowhere to go, was hit and the ball bounced away, finally recovered at the 20-yard line.
St. John’s (3-1) then had the ball for its turn from the 10 and on first down Cassidy — who else? — gained seven, and on second down, scored standing up, touching off a wild celebration on the field and in the stands.
“The kids hung in there,” Andreoli said. “In the second half, Xavier ran it at us pretty good. But the kids dug in their heels when they had to. They proved they could play from behind and for a young team like we have, I give them a lot of credit.
“I told them although we were down eight, there was three minutes left and it was a one-score game. I told them to get their heads back in the game and they did.”
Xavier took a 7-0 lead on a 1-yard TD by Cunningham at 4:47 of the first quarter. St. John’s came back with three touchdowns in the half. The first was a 10-yard pass to Mike Corinna with eight seconds left in the quarter (the kick was wide).
The second was a 25-yard pass to Lucey with 3:14 left in the half — plus a two-point conversion run by Cassidy — and the third was a 3-yard run by Cassidy with 22 seconds left. That score was set up by an interception of Schoonmaker by Joe DeVerdi.
Xavier finished with exactly 300 yards offense, 246 yards on the ground. St. John’s had 219 yards offense, just 89 yards on the ground. During Xavier’s three-touchdown rally in the second half, the Falcons outgained the Pioneers 189-48.
It wasn’t enough.
“That’s a good football team,” Marinan said. “Even though we lost, I’m happy with how we responded in the second half.”
Luke Schoonmaker, the Falcons starting quarterback who had been cleared to play after a bout with mononucleosis, was taken to the hospital at halftime. He took a hit in his side and there was swelling, so Marinan said they felt it was “important” to get him to a hospital.
Marinan also said that McCarthy may have broken an ankle late in the game, although he continued to play after the injury. Marinan said the two players’ status won’t be known until sometime Sunday, if then.
Xavier is home Saturday at Palmer Field with Notre Dame at 7 p.m.