CHARLOTTE – It was both a tale of two halves and the ultimate shot at redemption as Charlotte Christian came back twice from the depths to stun rival Providence Day 33-32 in both teams’ regular-season finale.
The game had been anticipated as the state championship preview and one both teams circled on their schedules since meeting in last year’s title game.
But it hadn’t really played out that way this season.
Providence Day, which entered the season with a star-studded roster and grand expectations, lost its first three games. After winning five straight, they lost to Christ School the week before.
The Knights entered the game 8-0 and having outscored their opponents 378-14.
But Charlotte Christian opened the game, played after an all-day rain storm and on a night in the low 40s, with five turnovers – including two in the red zone by star quarterback Garrett Shrader – and the Chargers pounced.
They led 26-6 to at the break and seemed in complete control as they took advantage of four first half turnovers by Shrader alone.
“We killed ourselves,” Charlotte Christian coach Jason Estep said. “It was lack of execution. We turned it over twice inside the 10. And, we can’t do that.”
But, like usual, the second half was a different story.
“There was no panic,” Estep said. “We thought we could win the game and we made some adjustments. When we walked out, we were fine. I think it’s important they battled some adversity.”
First it was a Shrader run, followed by a 3-and-out for the defense. Then it was another Shrader score, this time on a pass to Ben Williams that cut the Providence Day lead to 26-20.
After another strong Christian defensive possession, Shrader led the Knights on a 93-yard scoring drive he capped with a touchdown run and an improbable 27-26 lead with 7:34 to go.
Shrader finished the game 13-23 for 163 yards passing and a touchdowns and 194 yards rushing on 29 carries to go with four ground scores and five turnovers.
“I never know if Garrett just threw a touchdown or an interception because he is so even-keeled on the football field,” Estep said. “He doesn’t let his emotions get to him out there.”
After that run, Shrader gave a fist pump and ran back to his elated sideline.
But Providence Day wouldn’t go away.
Notre Dame linebacker recruit Osita Ekwonu had a huge game filling in for Nickel Fields, the Chargers starting tailback who is out for the year.
Ekwonu ran for 186 yards and four touchdowns, including the one he scored to put the Chargers up again, 32-27.
“We have to do a better job of getting points early so they have to do other things than just give it to him, because he’s a bull, now,” Estep said.
But, his Knights got the ball back with a chance to win it late.
However, on their first play after a 20-yard gain, Shrader fumbled again, and the Chargers got it with 3:22 left. Shrader lay on the field for a moment before slowly getting up, perhaps thinking he’d cost his team.
After the Knights forced a punt with 1:25 to go, Shrader hit Ricky Kofoed for 33 yards and added a seven-yard run to set in motion a wild ending.
With 14.2 seconds remaining and the ball on the Charger seven yard line, Shrader rolled out and looked for a receiver to throw to. With nobody open, he took off, but was stopped at the 2.
Chargers, fans, players, coaches and supporters stormed the field.
So, too, did Estep.
“What I saw is we got a first down with 2.7 to go,” he said. “The clock has to stop for the box to set. The chains aren’t going to reset because it’s first and goal, but they have to give them time to set the box. We wanted to get to the line to spike it, but the clock kept running down. It was like the left hand didn’t know what the right one was doing, but we kind of talked through it. Then they called a timeout, and they had to because everything was in disarray. That allowed us to process it more. We had a couple of things, but we felt like we had to spread them out, which we did. He could have went to anyone there.”
Instead, Shrader called his own number and dove into the end zone for the win as time expired, erasing the memory of his five turnovers and stealing victory.
“Let’s remember, Garrett doesn’t get the chances on offense if it wasn’t for our defense there. They did an unbelievable job,” Estep said. “If they keep running the ball down our throat, it’s over. We had six turnovers tonight How many teams across the country make six turnovers and can win a football game?”
The two teams meet again Nov. 2 in the opening round of the payoffs.
“We have to do better,” Estep said. “And we’ll get it cleaned up. But I’m pretty happy the way these guys came back tonight.”