Solon was beyond the point of big trouble during the Comet gridders’ road test against unbeaten Greater Cleveland Conference foe Euclid on Friday night. Trouble had already come and gone, and matters only appeared to getting worse.
Entering the game at 6-0 and tied for the AP No. 2 ranking among Division I teams in Ohio, the host Panthers owned a 17-0 lead after 6-foot-1, 210-pound senior running back Jaabir Mujihad punched in a 13-yard touchdown on a five-play, 82-yard drive with 8:48 to go in the half.
Mujihad presented a double-whammy of dominant speed and superior muscle not often seen on the high school gridiron, as he already had 14 carries for 143 yards at that point in the game, mistreating Comet tacklers like babies in a candy shop.
Solon’s offense wasn’t having much luck either. The Comets punted four times and lost a fumble on their first five possessions, running 16 plays for just 11 yards.
After trouble had already seemed to come and go, Euclid’s offense was on the verge of blowing the game open with a first-and-goal opportunity at the 5-yard line. But Solon’s defense ended up turning the Panthers over on downs, thanks to a pass breakup by senior defensive back Greg Parries, and the score remained, 17-0, with 3:38 to go in the half.
“We just said we have to weather the storm,” Solon 17th-year head coach Jim McQuaide said. “I mean, they’re the (No. 2) team in the state for a reason. They run the ball very well. We’ve got to weather the storm, and then we started playing better towards the end of the first half, and then it continued into the second half.” Starting his sixth offensive series from his own 6-yard line, Solon junior quarterback Pat McQuaide aired out a toss in single coverage down the sideline, and Parries came up with a juggling catch for 47 yards.
Feeling the pressure in the pocket, McQuaide was just three-of-eight passing for negative-1 yard until that completion.
“I mean, we changed our lineup so we had Greg in a favorable matchup,” he said of Parries. “And Greg, if you watch him in track, he’s one of the fastest kids in the state. So, he’s hard to cover going deep. So, we got what we wanted. I just put it out there, and Greg made a great catch and got us a first down.”
Solon’s drive appeared to stall at midfield, but senior Grant McCurry took a direct snap on a fake punt and took off for 30 yards to convert fourth-and-10 and set up the Comets for their first trip to red zone.
On the next play, McQuaide scored a 12-yard touchdown on a read option to cut Solon’s deficit, 17-7, with 1:41 to go in the half and provide his team a lifeline.
The way Euclid was moving the pigskin in the first half, the Panthers could have put their offense back on the field to score, but, after one play, fifth-year head coach Jeff Rotsky let the clock tick all the way down to 46 seconds before calling a timeout.
Despite being outgained, 300 yards to 112 yards, the Comets faced just a 10-point deficit at intermission and a lifetime of football awaiting in the second half.
“We just told our guys we’re going to keep playing,” coach McQuaide said. “It’s a marathon, and there’s a lot of ebbs and flows throughout a game and throughout the whole season, and the way we came back from last week, we’re very proud of these guys.”
Solon was coming off a 41-7 loss against AP No. 1-ranked Mentor (7-0).
On the third play off the third quarter, Euclid’s Mujihad ripped off a 30-yard gain but was stripped at midfield, and Solon’s McCurry recovered the fumble.
While Mujihad had seven rushes for 10-plus yards at that point in the game, Solon’s line went on to plug the holes up front, allowing tacklers to bring down the Panther behemoth before he was full steam ahead. Mujihad had just one double-digit carry thereafter.
“I mean, coach McQuaide said they punched us in the mouth and it’d be about how we’d react to that punch, and I think we did that well in the second half,” said Solon 6-foot-4, 235-pound junior defensive end Najee Story, who already has college offers from big-time programs like Ohio State and Alabama.
“We just clogged up the running lanes and made sure that he couldn’t bounce it out,” Story said. “We made sure we wrapped up too.”
Solon’s offense couldn’t capitalize on the Mijuhad fumble, but the field position was in favor of the Comets.
Solon senior Ethan Wong punted down to the 1-yard line, and then when it was Euclid’s turn to punt back, a shanked boot provided the Comets an 11-yard field. Two plays later, McQuaide dialed up Parries on a flag route for a 10-yard touchdown to cut the deficit, 17-13, with 7:43 to go in the third quarter.
The Comets were back in business with 31-yard and 64-yard fields on their next two possessions, thanks to a sack by Solon 200-pound senior lineman Jack Westrich on the former defensive stop and then a forced fumble by junior Khalil Eichelberger that was recovered by Westrich on the latter, but Solon couldn’t capitalize.
Nonetheless, Solon kept the field position in its favor, as Wong crafted another brilliant punt to pin the Panthers at their own 7-yard line with 8:52 to play. Solon’s defense went on to stuff Mujihad on three straight carries and took over possession on a 36-yard field.
Solon’s offense got down to the 11-yard line, but a pop-pass reverse went wrong for an 11-yard loss, and then Solon faced fouth-and-12 on the 13-yard line.
Deciding to go for it, signal-caller McQuaide was on his way down with two Panther linemen wrapping him up, but he somehow managed to get off the pass for a 13-yard touchdown to McCurry for the 20-17 lead with 3:23 to play.
“Their D-linemen, I mean, those guys are really good players,” McQuaide said. “They made a really good move to get off the block, and they were in the backfield, and I had to move, and they still got me. But I just found Grant (McCurry). It was kind of like a split-second that I saw him and got him the ball, and he made a great catch. So, it was really good.”
There was a penalty on Euclid during the play that was assessed on the ensuing kickoff. But, instead of just booting a touchback, Solon tried to pin the Panthers inside the 20. Instead, Euclid had a 39-yard return to its own 44-yard line.
Three players later, Mujihad punched in a 5-yard touchdown, and Euclid reclaimed the lead, 24-20, with 2:27 to play.
With their always-enough-time mentality, the Comets got back on the field and orchestrated an 80-yard drive that included a 16-yard reception by Parries, a 48-yard reception by McCurry and an 11-yard reception by junior running back Khalil Eichelberger, before McQuaide danced into the end zone on a 5-yard keeper for a 27-24 lead with 1:04 to play.
“The game is on the line, so guys have to make plays,” coach McQuaide said about the low-scoring affair taking a turn for three touchdowns in less than a 2 1/2-minute stretch. “Last week, we didn’t make a lot of plays, to Mentor’s credit. Tonight, our guys stepped up and made some plays.”
Euclid had another advantageous kickoff return to its own 43-yard line, and then a pass interference call set up the Panthers at the Solon 20-yard line. But an incomplete pass, a sack by Solon 185-pound sophomore linebacker Jakob Oldenburg and another pass breakup by Parries forced Euclid to attempt a game-tying field goal from 41 yards out with 13 seconds to play.
Panther senior Manmadou Mbaye had split the uprights from 36 yards in the first half, but his attempt from 41 yards sailed wide left, and the Comets were able to hang on for the upset, improving their record to 5-2 with a 3-1 mark in the GCC.
“It makes me feel great,” lineman Story said about his fellow defensemen holding up to force Euclid’s final field-goal attempt. “It makes our whole team feel great, playing as a unit, making our plays. It shows how one cohesive team plays.
“I think this is the greatest game I’ve every played. No game has been like this. We just had to bounce back all night. There’s going to be tough plays, but it’s how you react to make positive plays out of it. We reacted well.”