Solon football only trailed, 20-15, at halftime of its season opener against non-league foe Hudson, as the Comets’ defense was both brilliant and a hot mess on Friday night at Stewart Field.
The visiting Explorers racked up 313 yards of offense in the first half, including 273 yards rushing behind the elusiveness of junior quarterback Jacob Paltani and the thunder of junior running back Drew Lightner.
Graduating four starters on the defensive line and its top three tacklers from its linebacker corps, Solon’s front seven was mostly out of sorts on the heels of a campaign that the Comets surrendered just 15.6 points and 223.9 yards per game.
Had the 2019 Solon gridders not forced a fumble and picked off a pair of Hudson passes on three consecutive possessions in the first quarter on Friday night, who knows what the damage would have been.
As 17th-year head coach Jim McQuaide said, the Comets had a ton of big plays, as well as a ton of not-so-good plays.
“First of all, I think we have to give a ton of credit to them,” he said. “They had a tremendous plan. They did a lot of things that they hadn’t done in the scrimmages, when we saw them. And they had us on the ropes. And you never know. Everything’s a new year, and you never know how your team’s going to react to adversity and those things.”
Solon was 0-2 when trailing at halftime last season and 10-41 when trailing at halftime since McQuaide took over the reins in 2003. So, if the Comets wanted to be an outlier on Friday night, they’d need to get their act together on stopping the run, as well as capitalizing on turnovers.
But when the Solon gridders opened the third quarter, they went three-and-out, dropped the punt snap and allowed Hudson to execute one play for a 16-yard touchdown from Paltani to sophomore Colin Pierce for the Explorers’ largest lead of the game, 27-15, with 10:51 to go in the frame. A runaway affair appeared to be just one more end-zone find away for the visitors.
Surely a 24-point third quarter for Solon wasn’t going to happen, and a 46-41 victory for the home Comet faithful didn’t appear feasible either – at least not at that point.
“We never underestimate our opponent, but it was a tough game, and we battled it out to the end,” Solon 6-foot-4, 250-pound senior lineman Ethan Pitzel said. “I think we just had to settle in a little bit and also demonstrate our conditioning. We conditioned a lot this offseason to be able to play that third and fourth quarter as well as we did.”
Before it got to that point, Hudson drove 70 yards in less than two minutes on its opening drive to take a 7-0 upper hand, and Solon answered 94 seconds later on a 37-yard touchdown run by 205-pound junior running back Khalil Eichelberger.
With both teams running their hurry-up offense, there were nine possessions in the opening frame alone. Hudson would run 80 plays, and Solon would snap the pigskin 60 times by the end of the night.
“We went to two of their scrimmages, and they showed a tremendous amount of energy,” Solon junior quarterback Pat McQuaide said. “That’s all we took away, was these guys are going to come to play. And they did. They punched us in the mouth right out of the gate.”
But the score remained fairly low in the first half, considering there was a combined 488 yards of offense, mainly because of those three forced turnovers by Solon’s defense. Comet 190-pound sophomore Markell Green, who finished with a team-high 13 tackles, got the turnover party started when he forced a fumble on a tackle for loss and Solon 190-pound senior lineman Wes Whitham recovered it.
Solon’s other sophomore linebacker, 185-pounder Jakob Oldenburg, who finished with nine tackles, then collected an interception, and 5-foot-10 senior safety Grant McCurry collected another interception after that.
Unable to capitalize, Solon’s offense went three-and-out after each of those turnovers, and Hudson’s Paltani finally made the Comets pay with a 12-yard keeper to the end zone for a 14-7 Explorer lead with 48 seconds left in the first quarter.
“If we would have capitalized on those turnovers, then that could have changed things,” coach McQuaide said. “But you have to give them credit, too, for what they’re doing. And we did not do a good job of complementary football.”
Solon’s defense did hold Hudson to three field-goal attempts for the remainder of the half – only two splitting the uprights – while Eichelberger found the end zone again, on a 19-yard catch from McQuaide, to stay within striking distance, 20-15, at the break.
Then, after Hudson took that 27-15 upper hand just 69 seconds into the third quarter, it was all Solon for the next 24 points of the game. Specifically igniting that run, quarterback McQuaide was scrambling during a third-and-nine play and connected with 6-foot-1 senior receiver Ethan Wong for a 71-yard touchdown.
“I mean, we do that stuff all the time,” McQuaide said about performing under pressure. “I think we scored about four touchdowns in our three scrimmages on scramble drill. So, I mean, it’s a credit to the receivers. They make it easy for me. They get open, and I give them the ball and watch them do the rest.”
Four plays later, McCurry collected his second interception of the night and returned it to the house for a 75-yard pick-six and the Comets’ first lead of the game, 29-27, with 8:06 remaining in the frame.
That pass appeared to be uncatchable, but somehow McCurry got the pick and managed to stay in bounds.
“I just saw (the intended receiver) running at me, and I knew it was a pass because the linemen dropped back,” McCurry said. “And then right when you saw him break, I tried to jump it. Like, right when he broke, I jumped it. And then I was just trying to get there on time. I didn’t know if I was going to pick it, but I thought, if I could undercut it and then stay on the sideline a little bit, I’d be able to pick it and take off.”
On Hudson’s ensuing possession, Solon’s highly recruited 6-foot-4, 235-pound junior lineman Najee Story stripped Paltani to provide his offense a 15-yard field. Solon junior kicker Noah Jahnke capitalized on a 30-yard field goal for a 32-27 lead with 5:13 to go in the third.
Solon’s defense went on to force a three-and-out for Hudson’s first punt of the game, and the Comets’ offense went back to work with Eichelberger converting a fourth-and-two by the nose of the football on a measurement, followed by his 29-yard chunk play, 205-pound senior RJ Howard’s 9-yard bulldoze and McQuaide’s quarterback wedge for a 1-yard touchdown and a 39-27 lead with 1:43 remaining in the third.
“There was a ton of big plays on both sides and a ton of not good plays,” coach McQuaide said. “I guess it might have been a good game to watch as a fan, but I don’t know if it’ll be that good of a game tomorrow when we watch the film. But it is good that we have a lot that we can do better. So, we’re proud of our effort, but now we’ve got to refine our effort.”
Hudson finally ended Solon’s 24-point spree when Lightner broke loose on a 63-yard touchdown run to trim the Explorers’ deficit, 39-34, with 57 seconds left in the third quarter, and it was game on in crunch time.
But Solon’s offense answered when it needed to, driving 80 yards on seven plays with Eichelberger bulling forward with the help of Howard for a 3-yard touchdown and a 46-34 lead with 9:44 to play. Eichelberger finished the night with 19 carries for 144 yards, not to mention he was a tackling machine on three straight kickoffs in the second half.
On Hudson’s final two possessions in the fourth quarter, bad snaps disabled the Explorers, who could not convert on fourth-and three and then could not convert a fourth-and-25. Hudson’s final touchdown came on a blocked punt with two seconds remaining for the 46-41 final in Solon’s favor.
While Hudson finished with 494 yards, including 403 yards rushing, Solon gained 434 yards with quarterback Pat McQuaide completing 18 of 27 passes for 255 yards to propel the Comets’ highest-scoring performance since a 53-41 triumph against Medina in 2016. Grant McCurry led the receiving corps with six catches for 108 yards, while senior Greg Parries tallied seven catches for 33 yards.
“It’s definitely important to win every game, but there’s nothing worse than coming out and losing the first game,” quarterback McQuaide said. “And Hudson, credit to them. They played their hearts out. They’re a really good team. But we’ve lost games week one before. I’ve been a part of that. So, there’s nothing worse than being 0-1 after the first game, and we put in a ton of work to be 1-0, and we got the job done.”