UTICA – Things didn’t look good early for Vernon-Verona-Sherrill.
The Red Devils fell behind 14-0 less than three minutes into Saturday’s season-opening clash as Notre Dame scored touchdowns on two of their first three plays from scrimmage.
Then Nate Palmer, a tough-as-nails receiver, willed his team back into the game, allowing VVS to settle down and eventually wear down Notre Dame for a 39-21 Class B East victory at Brother Victor McCarthy Memorial Stadium.
“We just never gave up,” Palmer said. “The game can always change in a heartbeat so you never know.”
Quarterback Alex Oliver connected with Palmer for 193 yards and three touchdowns to keep pace with the Jugglers. Oliver and Palmer hooked up on scores of 62 and 42 yards in the second quarter to help VVS (1-0) pull within 21-19 at halftime and the Red Devils thoroughly dominated on both sides of the ball in the second half.
Then on the opening drive of the second half, the duo gave the Red Devils their first lead of the game as Palmer hauled in Oliver’s pass for a four-yard score with 5:21 remaining in the third quarter.
“Three plays and two touchdowns is hard to deal with,” Oliver said. “We came back in the huddle and said that isn’t us, and after that we dominated. I have to give credit to the line. They were moving them off the ball and pushed them around. (Notre Dame) is big, but that doesn’t matter. It was our plan to wear them out and we did that.”
After surging to the lead, VVS junior running back Bryce Cousin went to work, churning out 91 of his 110 yards and two of his three touchdowns in the second half as the Red Devils dominated in the trenches with a mix of counters and power football.
“We just kept coming back,” said Cousins, who had a memorable first game on varsity. “We didn’t really worry about the scoreboard and just kept punching it in. Eventually we wore them out. It’s pretty nice, but it was really a team victory and our line really blocked well.”
Notre Dame struck first on its second play from scrimmage as junior quarterback Treijen Garrett found a huge hole over the right side and outran the Red Devils defense for a 57-yard touchdown jaunt. Tom Roefaro, who made all three of his extra points, made it 7-0.
Following a three-and-out by VVS, Garrett wasted no time in extending Notre Dame’s lead. The dual-threat QB, dropped back and threw a strike to receiver Patrick Espinosa, who made the grab and then split the defense for a 66-yard catch and run to make it 14-0.
Garrett finished with 130 yards passing and 118 rushing for the Jugglers (0-1). Espinosa had two catches for 71 yards and tight end Nick Courto had three receptions for 45 yards.
“I thought we would come out strong and we had another gear early on,” said Garrett. “Once the second half came we wore down and started cramping. I have to give credit where credit is due and give VVS credit for coming back. A lot of teams would’ve given up being down 14-0 after three plays.”
Another huge momentum swing came on the Jugglers’ next offensive possession as Notre Dame took over at VVS’ 13-yard line after a botched punt snap. On the first play, Garrett hit Espinosa on a 12-yard slant to give the Jugglers a first-and-goal from the 2-yard line. On the next play, Garrett rambled over the right side to seemingly give his squad a 20-0 lead, but a facemask penalty moved the Jugglers back and the VVS defense bowed its back and forced a turnover on downs.
“That was a big stop,” Palmer said. “It kept us right in the game.”
Although VVS failed to get the offense going on the ensuing drive, they were able to flip field position, and once again, the Red Devils defense stepped up as T.J. Horodnick read a receiver screen and came up with a big interception.
Sparked by a crucial 38-yard Palmer reception on fourth down, the Red Devils cut Notre Dame’s lead in half as two plays later Cousin romped in from two yards out with 11:00 remaining in the half.
In a wild final few minutes of the first half, Notre Dame restored its 14-point advantage as Garrett scrambled right and threaded in a six-yard score to tight end Nick Courto with 2:45 remaining in the half.
It took the Red Devils two plays to answer as Oliver perfectly floated a pass to Palmer for a 62-yard touchdown to make it 21-13 with 2:24 left in the second quarter.
VVS then forced a quick punt and the Oliver and Palmer show struck again. Oliver started the two-play drive with a 12-yard run, and then hit Palmer streaking down the left sideline for a one-handed 42-yard score.
“My eyes light up when I see man-to-man coverage,” said Palmer, who also had three touchdowns against Central Valley Academy last season. “I know (Oliver) is good enough to get me the ball and I just try to watch the ball in and make the catch. … I did that today.”
On both long strikes, Notre Dame defensive back Zack Brush was in good defensive position. However, Palmer expertly used his body to shield Brush and then create late separation.
“They did a good job getting the ball to him,” Notre Dame head coach Jake DerCola said of Palmer. “And he took advantage of the opportunities. You can’t defend a perfect pass and a great catch. They made a few of those plays.”
Oliver, who fought off a slow start, finished with 203 yards passing and 35 more rushing. He also tries to take advantage of Palmer’s rare abilities as often as possible.
“He’s a playmaker, that’s for sure,” Oliver said of his senior receiver. “You just try to get him the ball and see what he can do … and that’s what I did.”
After falling behind midway through the third quarter, Notre Dame had a nice drive going in hopes of regaining the lead, but eventually turned it over on downs.
Most of Notre Dame’s starters are two-way players, and the VVS offensive line took advantage of an exhausted Jugglers defense in methodically marching for touchdown drives of 66 and 37 to close out the game. Cousin capped off both drives with a scores of 29 and five yards.
“We got worn out and started cramping up,” DerCola said. “They were the better conditioned team and they are definitely the deeper team. In the beginning of the game we made big plays and had everything going. Then we started making mental mistakes. One or two little mistakes ruin plays. When you get tired you make more mistakes. We have to work on our conditioning.”
VVS head coach Gary Oliver loved the fight his team showed in avenging last to avenge last season’s 46-13 defeat to the Jugglers.
“We don’t look at the scoreboard,” Oliver said. “I told them that whether you are winning or losing you need to give 100 percent on that play. Some teams would’ve folded. … That shows great character … that’s a lot of heart … that’s hard to teach.”
Alexander Kipp had 35 scrimmage yards for VVS, which heads for another stiff challenge when they play at two-time defending sectional champion Cazenovia Friday night. Anthony Farina had two sacks in one series to help lead a strong defensive effort by the Red Devils in the second half.
Notre Dame looks to rebound Friday night at Central Valley.
VVS 39, Notre Dame 21
VVS 0 19 6 14—39
ND 14 7 0 0—21
ND-Treijen Garrett 57 run (Tom Roefaro kick)
ND-Patrick Espinosa 66 pass from Garrett (Roefaro kick)
VVS-Bryce Cousin 2 run (Nate Palmer kick)
ND-Nick Courto 6 pass from Garrett (Roefaro kick)
VVS-Nate Palmer 62 pass from Alex Oliver (kick failed)
VVS-Palmer 42 pass from Oliver (pass failed)
VVS-Palmer 4 pass from Oliver (pass failed)
VVS-Cousin 29 run (Palmer kick)
VVS-Cousin 5 run (Palmer kick)