John Buffone, Pat Huggins and Matt Catrillo break down three Week 6 football matchups in the Lancaster-Lebanon League. Video by John Buffone.
On paper, it looked to be a classic matchup between two excellent, 5-0 football teams.
On the field, it looked even better.
Unbeaten Mid-Penn Capital Division foes Palmyra and Middletown slugged it out for four memorable quarters Friday night before Middletown emerged with a well-earned, 14-10 victory at War Memorial Field.
Palmyra, too good and too proud, wasn't looking for a moral victory when it took the field but it left with one as a consolation prize, thanks to a heroic, bend-but-don't break defensive effort highlighted by two fumble recoveries and a goal line stand that kept the outcome in doubt until the final whistle.
Offensively the Cougars were led by senior running back Alon Rhette who cracked the 100-yard mark with the help of a 69-yard touchdown run in the second quarter, and a Griffin Weidler 23-yard field goal early in the first quarter that gave Palmyra a brief 3-0 lead.
But on a night when it was outgained 422-198 by the Blue Raiders' high-powered offense, it was its defense that was Palmyra's greatest source of pride. The Cougars bent a lot but they rarely broke, defensively or emotionally.
"They're a great football team, and I throw us in that same league the way we played tonight," Palmyra coach Chris Pope said. "I'm proud of the way we played tonight. We want to win, but the effort was there and I was proud of what we did."
If there was any doubt - there really wasn't - that Palmyra would come to play it was erased seconds into the game after Rhette took the opening kickoff back 58 yards to eventually set up Weidler's field goal 1:37 into the game.
Middletown would respond on the ensuing possession, marching 66 yards in 13 plays and taking a 7-3 lead when quarterback Chase Snavely sneaked in from the 1 with 4:34 left in the 1st.
The Blue Raiders would then make it 14-3 with 7:20 left in the half when speedy tailback Jaelen Thompson broke loose for a 57-yard TD run.
Surely that gave Middletown control of the game for good, right? Surely not.
On the next play from scrimmage, Rhette dashed 69 yards for the score and the final points of the night, as the two teams engaged in a fierce battle of defensive wills the rest of the way.
"It became a war inside," Pope said of the second half, which saw Middletown bottle up Rhette and Palmyra do the same to Thompson. "I felt our guys fought hard, but in the end we came up a little bit short."
Quite reluctantly, though. Before succumbing, the Cougars would turn Middletown over on downs three times in their half of the field, while also recovering a Thompson fumble at the Palmyra 10 with 8 minutes and change left.
And though it struggled mightily on offense outside of Rhette's long TD run, the outcome was in doubt until the final seconds when Palmyra's last drive fizzled near midfield.
"We did some things that were not good, but at the same time our defense came up and forced some turnovers and got some stops," Pope said. "Someone has to win, someone has to lose."
In the end, though, it was a loss that felt like a win, one that could propel Palmyra forward rather than backwards.
"I told the guys, 'It should feel like acid in your mouth.' You should never accept or tolerate losing.'" Pope said. "At the same time, it matters, the effort you give and how you represent your community. And I think they came out here and did that."
Palmyra 14, Middletown 10
Palmyra _ 3 _ 7 _ 0 _ 0 _ — _ 10
Middletown _ 7 7 _ 0 _ 0 _ — _ 14
P— Weidler 23 FG
M - Snavely 1 run (Brady kick)
M — Thompson 57 run (Brady kick)
P - Rhette 69 run (Weidler kick)
_ P _ M
First downs _ 9 _ 15
Rushes-yards _ 37-169 _ 41-281
Passing _ 4-12-0 _ 7-14-0
Passing yards _ 29 _ 141
Total yards _ 198 _ 422
Punts _ 4-27.3 _ 0-0
Fumbles-lost _ 2-1 _ 3-25-95
Penalties-yards _ 4-30 _ 11-95
Rushing — . P: Rhette 24-123, Reigle 7-33, Robertson 6-13. M: Thompson 22-140, Fox 15-95, Stetler 1-38, Leach 1-8, Snavely 2-0.
Passing — .P: Robertson 4-12-0-29. M: Snavely 7-14-0-141
Receiving — P: Reigle 2-8, Wasilewski 1-12, Cooper 1-9. M: Leach 3-42, Mills 1-51, Hughes 1-30, Thompson 1-19, Fox 1- (-1).