For a few seconds, the Bellefonte football team and its fans thought they were on their way to an improbable comeback win.
They were dancing in the bleachers and jumping and hugging on the field.
“Game sealed right there,” Red Raider quarterback Chase Gardner said. “That’s the game.”
Then everyone saw the dreaded yellow flag.
It wiped out the final yards of Cade Fortney’s apparent 85-yard kickoff return, and the six points that came with it.
Instead, Bellefonte couldn’t get that one last score and fell 33-28 to Jersey Shore in the season opener Friday night at Rogers Stadium.
“The ballgame was done, it was over,” coach Shanon Manning said. “Had the ballgame won, and that’s what it comes down to. … You play 48 minutes, and sometimes three, four and five seconds is what it comes down to.”
The Raiders suffered through a difficult first half, spotting the Bulldogs a 27-0 lead at the break, then roared back for the lead and nearly the win behind Gardner’s arm and the legs of their stable of receivers.
Gardner was 17 of 25 passing for 245 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions. However, in his first start, the senior took a major beating with 13 sacks.
“It was tough,” Gardner said. “They were bringing seven, eight guys for the six we had protecting me.”
“I thought Chase Gardner really played his tail off,” Jersey Shore coach Tom Gravish said, “as many times as we sacked him.”
The Red Raiders had the switch flipped immediately after halftime, needing just five plays and 2:07 to roll 65 yards, with Gardner hitting Tanner Helms on a 10-yard strike.
“We kind of flipped the script,” Manning said. “… We changed our tempo, got them hung up in their base defense for a while and made them chase.”
After a few possession exchanges, Bellefonte trotted down the field again, this time a 55-yard march, with Dexter Gallishaw finishing it off with a dive in from the 1-yard line.
A quick three-and-out possession for the Bulldogs got the Raiders the ball again, and two plays later Gardner hit Helms on a short strike over the middle, and the senior tight end did the rest, bursting outside, getting a key block from Jaiden Boone to spring him into open space and 74 yards later the deficit was down to 27-21 in the final minute of the third quarter.
‘Second half we pretty much got everything together, started clocking,” Gardner said. “… It was pretty much all momentum towards us.”
Another three-and-out for Jersey Shore brought another punt, and the very next play saw Boone race 50 yards to the end zone for a 28-27 Bellefonte lead just 17 seconds into the fourth quarter.
“They had momentum,” Gravish said. “We tell our players all the time, when you have it, you can’t relinquish that momentum.”
Helms caught three passes for 106 yards, and Fortney had four receptions for 75.
After exchanging possessions, Jersey Shore got its offense to roll for the only time in the second half, a 40-yard scoring drive capped by an eight-yard connection from Elijah Shemory to Todd Sanford. The two-point conversion was thwarted, and Bellefonte was down five with 6:50 left.
That brought Fortney’s kick return — and the dashed hopes. The Raiders still took possession at the Bulldog 37, but three plays netted a loss of two yards, and Gardner was picked off on a desperate fourth-down heave.
Bellefonte had one more possession with two minutes left, but could not get moving.
Jersey Shore controlled the first half thanks to its up-tempo, no-huddle offense and the connections of Shemory to Sanford. They had first-half scoring strikes of 6, 33 and 13 yards, Max Mason added a 19-yard scoring run, and as a team dominated with 251 total yards to Bellefonte’s 31 net yards.
“First half, evidently that’s on me,” Manning said. “We weren’t ready to play.”
Shemory finished 15 of 23 for 206 yards, with Sanford catching 13 passes for 198 yards.
The Red Raiders thought they had a storybook comeback to brag about the rest of the season, but instead had their dreams crushed.
“I’ll be interested to see what kind of resiliency these guys have,” Manning said. “… That’s a heartbreaker. Can’t let one game cost two.”