Georgetown College football history includes three NAIA national championships, two hall of fame coaches, and a longer streak of sustained excellence than most programs at any level can boast.
If there's ever been a victory that compares to Saturday afternoon's 42-35 comeback at Cumberland University's expense, well, not even the venerable architect of the modern era, Bill Cronin, can remember it.
Trailing 35-7 after the Phoenix marched into the end zone with their opening drive of the second half, the Tigers scored 35 unanswered points in a span of 10:06 at Toyota Stadium to extend their streak of no sub-.500 seasons since Cronin took over in 1997.
Hours later, with an exponentially larger in-person crowd and television audience looking on, Oklahoma spoiled Baylor's undefeated season with a similar second-half storm.
An NFL playoff thriller by the Buffalo Bills of yesteryear and the New England Patriots' more recent Super Bowl shocker come to mind, also, but slim-to-no-chance turnarounds of this magnitude don't happen every day.
“That's quite a comeback there,” Cronin said. “I've been through a lot of games, but that was pretty good.”
Georgetown and Cumberland each finished the season at 5-5. The Tigers' only other non-winning season of the Cronin era was a similar break-even mark in 2008.
There were at least five conquering heroes.
Jake Johnson caught four touchdown passes from Zach Dampier, capped by a 10-yard catch to tie the game with 10 minutes left and a 19-yard go-ahead grab at the 6:34 mark.
“That's one of the biggest games I've had, just because we were down 28 points and were able to scratch back and win,” Johnson said. “It's big for the seniors. It was great to have that win.”
Johnson finished with 11 receptions for 176 yards, while Dampier completed 18 of 32 throws for 231 yards.
Defensively, two diving interceptions by freshman Anthony Welsh – playing an increased role due to an injury that scratched senior and leading tackler Starr Thompson from the lineup at the last second – turned the second-half tide.
“We didn't know about two of our guys that weren't going to play today until today, so I think that affected us a little bit early on,” Cronin said. “We're so young, and we're explosive. We have some really fine football players, as you can see. What Jake did today, that belongs on ESPN. That's good stuff.”
Last but not least, with the game tied at 35, Landon Corolla and Tyler Selby punctuated their senior day game with consecutive sacks. Selby forced and recovered a fumble on the latter, setting up the go-ahead touchdown.
Much of the afternoon was a disaster before that.
Even GC's lone touchdown of the first half, a 41-yard strike from Hunter Krause to J.J. Ogbogu, came with a painful price. Ogbogu was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct during his celebration, and since it was his second such personal foul of the afternoon, he was ejected from his final game as a Tiger at 9:15 of the second quarter.
“That's one of the saddest things I've seen in a while,” Dampier said. “I hated it for him, He's such a great athlete. Obviously I hate losing that target, but I hate it more for him as a person. That's tough to go through. We just had to keep stepping up.”
Krause, who was essentially lost for the season to a sprained knee seven weeks ago, went 8-for-12 for 116 yards in a relief role before Dampier re-entered.
Cumberland's tricky triple option sandwiched that sole GC highlight with a clinic and led 28-7 at the half.
Long touchdown runs by Telvin Rucker (41 yards) and Kendall Johnson (82), plus a 2-yard quarterback keeper by Joseph Rushin, made it 21-0 out of the gate.
“That's an explosive offense when you're on, but (it's tough) when you're not on, and you start getting some stops,” Cronin said. “I've run that offense before, and it's a great offense, but you've got to carry that momentum.”
Christopher Gatewood's 9-yard TD rush answered Ogbogu's grab, and it was more of the same out of the locker room when a long kick return set the table for Rucker's 30-yard score.
Players said Cronin, who typically paces the sideline without much outward emotion or any dramatic changes in his facial expression, was impassioned in the locker room, to say the least.
“It definitely wasn't the best tone (at halftime),” Dampier said. “We realized we had to do some soul-searching, being the last game, how we wanted to be remembered and how we wanted our seniors to go out. I think that made everybody step up. Coach Cronin was really fired up and got us all ready to go.”
The rally began modestly with a 14-yard connection from Dampier to Johnson at 4:40 of the third quarter.
With time looming as Georgetown's worst enemy, the 12-play, 78-yard drive felt like an eternity. Dampier converted a pair of third downs, first on a quick shot to Ellis Dunn, then a 24-yard pickup by Johnson at the Cumberland 14.
Dampier showed no ill effects from what has become Cronin's planned quarterback rotation in the second period. Multiple sacks of Krause countered the one touchdown pass during that stretch.
“We've been kind of babying Krause along, and we thought he was ready to go today. I didn't quite like some of the things I saw. I thought he was still hurting with his knee a little bit. That's part of the reason I went back to Zach,” Cronin said.
“Zach is so consistent. You know what he's going to do. He follows the script. I'm really proud of him making the plays he did today. He's hurting, too, with a back problem, and I think that hurt him early on, but he definitely came through for us.”
Cumberland's clock management varied from ultra-conservative to curiously aggressive with the lead. Georgetown may have encouraged the fateful switch by stuffing three consecutive runs by Kris Parker – Sander Roksvag had a hand in two of the stops – to force a quick punt.
Two pass interference flags against the Phoenix, plus a 13-yard connection from Dampier to Bryson Cobb, helped put Zach Babb in position for a 3-yard TD run.
Suddenly it was 35-21 with six seconds remaining in the third.
“We came back in the second half focused,” Johnson said. “We had some grit and intensity, and we stepped up and found a way to win.”
Welsh's interceptions set up the next two scoring drives.
The first one set up what looked like a long journey from the Georgetown 29, but Cumberland was called for a personal foul after taking down Dampier at the end of a scramble.
GC seized the moment and went deep on the next play. The 6-foot, 180-pound Johnson soared above two smaller Phoenix defenders to bring down the house and cut the deficit to a single touchdown.
“He's a great athlete out there. Sometimes you've got to throw it up and hope they make a play,” Dampier said of his favorite target. “He's been doing that for us all year, so obviously I've got a lot of trust in him and he's got a lot of trust in me. We just had to go out there and make it happen.”
Johnson returned the kind words.
“It's a litte out-and-up play, we call it. We had momentum, so we decided to take a shot. Zach threw it up there and decided to trust me, and I was able to make a big play,” he said. “(Dampier is a) tough guy. He was running draw plays a lot, kept on taking some hits, but he kept getting up and kept on fighting and putting the ball where it needed to be and making plays, so props to him.”
Needing a first down or two to stop the bleeding, Cumberland took delay of game and and unsportsmanlike conduct penalties on its next series. Rushin's aerial to Shaw Niblett on third-and-27 from the 13 looked like an attempt to cut his losses and throw it away, but Welsh made the diving grab and toe tap on the Phoenix sideline for another takeaway.
After another personal foul, plus a 16-yard run by Cobb (more than half the Tigers' net rushing all day), Dampier hit Johnson for the equalizer.
Johnson graduated from Pulaski County with more receptions than anyone in KHSAA history.
“He did it in high school. He's just a great kid, a great athlete, hard worker,” Cronin said. “He never gives up. If I could have 11 of those, baby, look out.”
GC needed only four plays to cover 31 yards for the game-winning TD after Selby's stand.
“All we did as coaches was put them in a place where they could make some plays, and they were able to do that,” Cronin said. “I'm proud of my guys, proud of my coaching staff. I hate that the season's over, but everything happens for a reason. I think we can really build on this win.”
Georgetown held Cumberland to 10 net yards on its final six series after the Phoenix amassed 350 in building the huge lead.
Corolla had 1½ of GC's four sacks to finish with 13 on the season.
The Tigers featured one of the youngest rosters in the Mid-South Conference and suffered three losses by a touchdown or less. Finding a way to win this one established an entirely different attitude heading into the off-season.
“We've got so many young guys that this momentum is really going to set them off,” Cronin said. “I think once we grow up we're going to be a pretty good football team.”
Two of his most celebrated returning players for 2020 agree.
“It's 1-0 for next season. We're starting off with a winning streak, and even more, sending off these seniors on a right note,” Johnson said. “I don't know if we could have done it any better way than coming back from 28 points. That's what made it so much more memorable.”
“It really just depends how you take it. We still have to get better, but it shows what we can do if we put our mind to it,” Dampier added. “We can be a great team. We've just got to keep working and make sure that next year when we're in this tight game that it means a lot more than just being .500.”