Pallotti defeated Concordia Prep 15-6 on Saturday in a match-up played under strict COVID-19 guidelines. The game was each team’s first in nearly a calendar year. Pallotti, the defending MIAA-B champion, used a masterful defensive performance to temper new Concordia Prep head coach Joseph Battaglia’s upset ambitions.
New rules and restrictions were put in place to help protect the players and prevent the spread of COVID-19, so though the play on the field looked like a typical Saturday afternoon contest, it felt very different.
Only one captain per team was allowed to join a singular official during the coin toss, and at the conclusion of the hard-fought contest, as opposed to getting into single-file lines to shake hands, the two teams walked down either side of the 45 yard-line, exchanging socially-distanced “good games.” Coaches and officials were required to wear masks at all times, and student-athletes were expected to do the same when they didn’t have their helmets on. Some chose to wear their mask throughout.
“It felt different out here today,” Pallotti defensive back Marquise Allsup said. “It was hard, I’m not gonna lie. It was hard keeping the mask on. It affected some people’s stamina, [because] it felt like we were holding our breath. But we got used to it.”
Perhaps the largest difference was the lack of fans in the stands. No students were allowed, so with only a smattering of family members in attendance, the atmosphere felt less like a high school football game and more like a midday trip to the library. Though Concordia played with energy from the start, Pallotti appeared to be flat early and took time to get going.
“Not having a student section definitely had a huge effect,” Pallotti wide receiver and Towson commit Isaiah Perkins said. “We can usually feed off of their emotion, but right now we can’t, so we have to rely on the energy of our teammates. We came out here and started a little slow and a little sluggish. We were able to pick it up, but it definitely has an effect not having any fans.”
Defense dominated the opening quarter. Concordia’s defensive linemen, Sone Metuge, Ayo Tifase and Terrell Bartee, controlled the line of scrimmage, making it difficult for Pallotti to establish its run game. The Panthers attempted to get the ball into the hands of Perkins early, but the offense was out of sync and struggled to find its rhythm. Pallotti was also careless with the ball, turning it over on multiple occasions in the red zone. In addition to the great team effort put forth by Prep, some of Pallotti’s offensive woes were undoubtedly a byproduct of restrictions placed on practice caused by COVID-19.
“It’s a huge challenge for us, for instance, we haven’t practiced 11-man football yet. We’ve been running in pods of nine, and this is our first time playing 11-man football today. We had no scrimmages, so we didn’t know where we were,” Pallotti head coach Tony Ashley said.
“It’s a challenge, but it’s the new normal now and it’s what we have to do to stay safe.”
Midway through the second quarter, Pallotti put a drive together. Following the lead of their massive offensive line, running backs Clayton Bullock-Thomas and Keshawn Wheeler were able to string together quality runs, which set-up quarterback Ejau Collazo to find receiver William Webster-Brown in the back of the end zone for the first score of the abbreviated season.
In the second half, Pallotti’s defense began to flex its muscle. The Panthers swarmed Concordia’s Justin Carter, tackling him in his own end zone for a safety. The ensuing free kick gave the Panthers offense a short field to work with, which they capitalized on when Bullock-Thomas found room off tackle, breaking free for a 22-yard touchdown run, making the score 15-0.
Playing with a comfortable lead, the Panthers defense turned up the heat. Led by linebacker Connor Maloney, they shut down Concordia Prep’s rushing attack and the likes of Cameron Young-Garner and relentlessly pressured Concordia quarterback Jalen Bradford, sacking or knocking him down just about every time he dropped back in the second half. Struggling to move the ball by conventional means, Prep attempted a double-reverse pass, but the disciplined Pallotti defense was not fooled and the pass was intercepted by Allsup, effectively clinching the Panthers’ win.
“Our defense is going to be solid; we’re really good this year,” Allsup said. “Our defense is going to hold this team, we got dogs everywhere. We got a good d-line that can rush the quarterback, our secondary is solid, our linebackers fill the gaps. We got everything.”
Last season, Pallotti’s defense registered six shutouts and would have had its first on Saturday had it not been for a late fourth-quarter fumble recovery returned for a touchdown by Concordia’s Gabe McArthur. Given the restrictions of a condensed preseason and socially-distanced practices, if the Panthers are to repeat, they will likely need to rely on the defensive side of the ball to carry them while the offense gets on track, something head coach Ashley doesn’t anticipate being a problem.
“The defense did exactly what we expected them to do. We see them in practice and go against them 7-on-7 everyday, so we know what that defensive line and the defensive unit is capable of,” Ashley said. “The thing to keep in mind is that defense played without Christopher Boti today, who holds 25 offers. Our defense is going to be strong this season.”
The Panthers have a huge test next week, as they are scheduled to play Calvert Hall (0-1). The Cardinals handed Pallotti its only loss of 2019, a 35-0 blowout. Other MIAA conference schools to open their seasons over the weekend include Boys' Latin, Gilman, Calvert Hall, Archbishop Spalding, John Carroll, Archbishop Curley, St. Paul's, Loyola Blakefield and Annapolis Area Christian.