WILKES-BARRE - A sudden roar of the crowd washed over Lycoming defender Ryan Mihoci, and it wasn't coming from the sideline he would have hoped. In pass coverage, the junior cornerback turned toward the middle of the field and saw the unthinkable, a King's receiver diving into the end zone with the ball in his hands.
It didn't seem plausible this scene could be unfolding in front of Mihoci's eyes. The Warriors' offense had given King's less than a minute to overcome a three-point deficit late in Saturday's game, with more than 60 yards of field to cover. But here was the Monarchs' extra-point unit racing on to the field, just 9 seconds left on the clock, to put the final touch on what was a 28-24 King's win over Lycoming at McCarthy Stadium.
Justin Burke, a receiver who didn't have a reception this season prior to Saturday, took an underneath route 39 yards up the middle of the field, diving into the end zone for a touchdown with 9 seconds left on Saturday afternoon. It came just 37 seconds after Lycoming had taken a three-point lead on a Craig Needhammer leap into the end zone.
Justin Burke of King’s scores the game-winning touchdown as Lycoming’s Cale Rice pursues Saturday at King’s.
The loss all but ended the Warriors' hopes of a 15th Middle Atlantic Conference championship. Lycoming's second MAC loss this season came at the expense of King's fifth consecutive victory.
The Warriors (5-3, 5-2 MAC) are one game behind MAC-leader Lebanon Valley (7-1, 6-1) after the Flying Dutchmen beat Delaware Valley in overtime. But Lebanon Valley essentially has a two-game lead over Lycoming because the Dutchmen have the head-to-head tie-breaker over the Warriors. King's (5-3, 5-2) has moved into a tie for second-place in the MAC.
Lebanon Valley would have to lose its final two games to Stevenson and Albright, and Lycoming would have to win its final two games against FDU-Florham and Stevenson for the Warriors to win its first league championship since 2008.
"It's amazing how you can go from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows in a matter of 30 seconds," Needhammer said. "Our last five games have all been down to the last 15 seconds or so. It's frustrating because we know we shouldn't be in these situations, but we put ourselves in this situation."
"With that offensive drive we thought we had this game wrapped up," Mihoci said. "We just had to play some good pass defense. That play came out of nowhere. It was a shock to me. It's a tough one to take."
Not even another come-from-behind fourth-quarter drive from Lycoming quarterback Tyler Jenny and his offense was enough to save the Warriors yesterday. A defense which struggled for the first 2 quarters to reel in a King's offense averaging 30 points per game, surrendered consecutive passes of 12, 19 and 39 yards after forcing the Monarchs into a third-and-17 situation on its game-winning drive.
After a sack and an incomplete pass down the field, King's dinked and dunked to pick up a first down. Then, with Lycoming's safeties and linebackers working toward the outside of the field, quarterback Tyler Hartranft hit Burke on an underneath route. Burke broke straight up the middle and Warriors safety C.J. Arhontakis missed a tackle at about the 20-yard line, allowing Burke a free run to the end zone.
King's head coach Jeff Knarr said he was just hoping to get somewhere near field-goal range with the underneath routes, Burke - who plays both offense and defense - just happened to break the play.
"Since the day he got here, I knew he was a playmaker," Hartranft said. "I saw their safety fly out over to the (three receivers side of the field) and it put maybe our best athlete in a one-on-one with a linebacker, and I'll take that matchup any day with Burke."
"We took one shot down field, then we had to go underneath to see if you can just weave and bob your way forward," Knarr said. "You hope maybe you can run around and call a timeout and try to kick a field goal."
It was another feather in the cap of a King's team which has won five games in a row for the first time since 2006, and is just a week removed from beating Delaware Valley on the road. And it was another setback for a Lycoming team which has walked a tight-rope all season with its last five games having been decided by seven points or less.
Lycoming again struggled in the third quarter, surrendering a three-point lead, having a punt blocked and fumbling away another possession. The Warriors' defense had maybe its worst performance of the year tackling, which reared its head on the game-winning play after it had appeared to have been shored up over the final 25 minutes of the game.
"I don't think we blocked or tackled as well as we could. Brutal tackling," Lycoming head coach Mike Clark said. "It was nice to be able to punch it in and take the lead, but we have to be able to finish the game, and we didn't."
Jenny (21 of 34, 249 yards, 2 touchdowns) engineered his third go-ahead, fourth quarter drive of the season, marching the Warriors 63 yards in 15 plays, capped with Needhammer's leaping 1-yard touchdown run in which he jumped over the pile of lineman at the line and reached the ball over the goal line.
The touchdown, which gave Lycoming a 24-21 lead with 46 seconds to go, came after the Warriors had two touchdowns wiped off the board during the drive. The first, on a rocket screen to Matt Atkinson, was negated by a penalty. The second came when it appeared receiver John Sibel dove into the end zone after a reception, but it was ruled he stepped out at the 3-yard line.
"That showed the heart of everyone on this offense," Needhammer said. "We know we can do it, it's just a matter of doing it."
An offense which recorded three first-half scoring drives, ran just nine plays in the third quarter. And if it wasn't for a knocked down pass by middle linebacker Kabongo Bukasa and a stout defensive effort following a fumble in that third quarter to turn away a scorching hot King's offense, the damage could have been much worse than a 21-17 deficit at the end of the third quarter.
Lycoming's defense seemed to have found its footing in the third quarter after King's had taken advantage of the Warriors' secondary. But that didn't come until after King's had already scored 21 points.
Hartranft (19 of 27, 295 yards, 3 TDs) completed passes of 23 and 33 yards on the Monarchs' first possession of the game to set up Kyle McGrath's 1-yard touchdown run. His 51-yard pass in the second quarter to Dan Kempa then set up Kempa's 9-yard touchdown reception.
Despite King's offensive success, Lycoming still held a 17-14 halftime lead thanks to a 3-yard touchdown reception for Needhammer, and a 36-yard touchdown reception for Corey Talerico. Zack Czap also kicked a 23-yard field goal, his third in the last two weeks.