The Indian Trail football team isn’t doing any favors for its head coach’s blood pressure.
But as long as the Hawks score more points than the other team, Paul Hoffman can put up with the stress.
For the second week in a row, Indian Trail needed a fourth-quarter comeback, as the Hawks wrangled the lead away from Bradford late in the game after a long touchdown drive and added another score following a special teams mistake by the Red Devils for a 25-14 Southeast Conference victory Friday night at Bradford Stadium.
Indian Trail (3-1 overall) moved to 2-0 in the SEC, including an 18-14 Week 3 win over Racine Park in which the Hawks needed two touchdowns in the final minutes to pull one out.
“It’s just about staying consistent at it and not doubting,” Hoffman said. “Just have enough confidence that if this doesn’t work, then let’s just keep punching and something’s going to get, and we’re going to pop one or we’re going to get a big play or we’re just going to start moving chains and find a series that’s working.
“It’s just belief in each other.”
That belief led to an 11-play, 66-yard go-ahead touchdown drive, as Indian Trail started at its own 34-yard line trailing 14-12 with 8 minutes, 11 seconds left in the game and took an 18-14 lead with 3:20 remaining after sophomore Xavier McWhorter capped a march that lasted 4:51 with a 2-yard touchdown run.
Junior quarterback Argjent Ismaili, not known so much for his legs as his arm, rushed for 25 of his team-high 60 yards on the drive. He also went 12-of-21 for 140 yards with two touchdowns and an interception passing on the game.
“It’s crazy how we just persevere,” Ismaili said. “… We have to finish every time. That was a great finish by our whole team.”
Meanwhile, it was a tough defeat for a young Bradford team, as the Red Devils dropped to 1-3 overall and 1-1 in the SEC.
“I really, honestly, felt pretty good with a two-point lead at halftime with the way our defense was playing,” Bradford coach Troy Bowe said.
His confidence was not unfounded.
Bradford’s defense limited Indian Trail to 248 total yards, including 108 rushing yards on 48 attempts for an average of 2.3 yards per carry.
Junior linebacker Brock Lampe, as always, was in the middle of things, and senior defensive back Sayge Terrell, junior defensive back Jon Maack (interception), sophomore linebacker Ethan Pergrande and senior linebacker Ricky Calero — among others — all made key plays.
But Indian Trail just possessed the ball too much in the fourth quarter, and it was largely due to one big play.
Facing a third-and-9 from his own 35-yard line on the game’s go-ahead drive, Ismaili found senior Amariyon Lynch-Gordon (four catches, 65 yards, TD) underneath. With plenty of space, Lynch-Gordon turned upfield for 23 yards to Bradford’s 42.
That was one of 19 offensive plays run by the Hawks in the fourth quarter to the Red Devils’ nine.
“Obviously, being out there 65 percent of the game — the entire fourth quarter — it’s going to take a toll,” Lampe said. “Bottom line, we should’ve just executed better.”
Never more so than on special teams.
Indian Trail failed on a two-point conversion try after the go-ahead touchdown, so Bradford still had plenty of time to re-take the lead down just 18-14.
Except senior return man DaNaije Ellis couldn’t get to a short kickoff, and Indian Trail sophomore Jamar Thompson pounced on the live ball at the Bradford 19.
To say the least, Bowe wasn’t pleased with the error.
“Totally (a) mental mistake, which is honestly unacceptable,” he said. “Totally unacceptable. First of all, why is he lined up at the 5 when the kid’s never kicked it that far in his life? The kid could kick it twice and it wouldn’t get to the 5-yard line. He’s got to line up at the 15, where we told him to line up all week long, then the kick’s right to him.
“Run up and catch it, and then we’ve got a shot, three minutes to go, down four. Put them on their heels and make some plays, and we’re good to go. But we’ve got to have the ball there, for sure.”
Instead, the Hawks got the ball and drained Bradford of its timeouts with three running plays that gained nothing. So, on fourth-and-10 from its 19 and in no-man’s land, Indian Trail got aggressive.
It paid off, as Ismaili fired a laser to junior receiver Clayton Bishop, who beat a pair of Bradford defenders and caught the ball near the left boundary of the end zone for a game-clinching score.
“We were out of field-goal range. Punting didn’t do anything for us,” Hoffman said. “So we just took a shot. We called something, and (Ismaili) had an option. He had a pre-snap read, and he went with it. We told him exactly where we were going to throw it.
“Whichever one, you’re throwing it to this spot, and he nailed it. ‘Bish’ ran underneath. It was perfect.”
Said Ismaili: “We had doubles lined up. I saw the safety, he moved over right. Our wide receiver, Clayton Bishop, he was one-on-one with the linebacker, so I took the shot and it paid off.”
The Red Devils had their own gutsy move in the second quarter that paid off, too.
Down 12-0 and starting at its own 10 with 7:05 left in the second — Bradford had just 13 yards on 12 plays and no first downs to that point — the Red Devils got a 40-yard run up the gut by sophomore Jalen Handford (eight carries, 80 yards) that started a nine-play, 90-yard touchdown drive, finished off by senior Will Darden’s 10-yard run.
The Red Devils then tried a surprise onside kick, which was recovered by senior Syncere Quinn at the Hawks’ 49. Six plays later, Bradford sophomore quarterback Nate Olson scored on a 1-yard sneak for a 14-12 halftime lead.
But led by senior linebacker Connor Fahnrich, Lynch-Gordon (interception) and senior defensive lineman Nijae King (two fourth-quarter sacks), that was all Indian Trail’s defense would allow to a Bradford offense that’s scored just 42 points in four games.
“We’ve got to be so much better offensively,” Bowe said. “We’ve got to be able to get first downs and let our defense rest and run the ball. We’re so young (on offense). It shows.”