Panthers 40, Eagles 24
Difference maker: Joseph Mancuso. Union County’s sophomore was nearly flawless, completing 23 of 27 passes for 325 yards and five scores. He also led the Panthers with 63 rushing yards on 10 carries.
Stat that matters: Mancuso completed 14 straight passes at one point, guiding Union County to touchdowns on five straight possessions.
Turning point: The Panthers sealed the game in the third quarter with a goal-line stand, followed by a pooch-kick recovery, followed by a 59-yard touchdown pass from Mancuso to Sam Gilbert.
Who’s next: Riverside hosts Social Circle next week; Union County hosts Greene County.
Since Union County coach Brian Allison returned for his second stint at the school in 2008, the Panthers have flirted with the playoffs multiple times only to have the door to the postseason slammed in their faces.
With Friday night’s 40-24 win over Riverside, Union County showed that it may be ready kick that door down.
“That’s the first thing (the players) said to me once the game was over,” Allison said. “’We’re close.’”
Fronted by a sterling performance from sophomore quarterback Joseph Mancuso, the Panthers (4-2, 2-1 Region 8-AA) led by as many as 30 points in the fourth quarter before the Eagles put up a pair of late scores.
Union County’s matchup with Greene County next week now looms large as the teams scrap for playoff position behind region front-runners Washington-Wilkes, Jefferson and Rabun County.
Meanwhile, Riverside (2-4, 1-3) saw its postseason hopes dwindle as Union County scored touchdowns on five consecutive possessions, spanning the second to the fourth quarter. The Eagles kept it interesting for much of the game on the strength of their quick-strike offense, but ultimately couldn’t keep pace with the Panthers.
Mancuso, who finished 23 of 27 passing for 325 yards and five touchdowns, is a big reason why. At one point he completed 14 straight passes, including four touchdowns, two of which covered more than 50 yards.
“He’s phenomenal,” Allison said. “He’s just grown up in the last month or month and a half. He’s got a really strong arm, he works hard at it, and the good thing is, he’s only in the 10th grade.”
Early in the game, Mancuso and the Panthers picked their way down field on quick routes covering 10 yards or less. That was good enough to stake Union County to a 14-0 lead on short touchdown passes to Robert Prunier in the first quarter and Jacob Rogers in the second.
But after Riverside cut the lead to 14-7 on a 31-yard touchdown strike from Collin Pettell to Raleigh Beougher late in the first half, Mancuso flashed the arm strength his coach was talking about.
Flushed from the pocket to his left by the Eagles’ pass rush, Mancuso zipped a pass across his body 30 yards downfield, hitting a streaking Rogers in stride for a 61-yard score with 1:03 remaining before halftime.
Though the Eagles never got back within one score, they had their chances.
Trailing 26-7 midway through the third quarter, Pettell scrambled and connected with Beougher for a 76-yard gain down to the Union County 1-yard line. But the Panther defense stood tall and forced a field goal.
The ensuing pooch kick slipped through an Eagle’s hands and was recovered by the Panthers. Three plays later, Union County was back in the end zone on a 59-yard pass from Mancuso to Sam Gilbert.
That gave the Panthers a comfortable 33-10 cushion and the issue was never again in doubt.
“I feel like our defense played a lot better than what the final score showed,” Allison said. “That was the first goal-line stand we’ve had this year, so I was proud of that.”
Riverside struggled to move the ball consistently until Sage Jordan began ripping off big chunks of yardage late in the second quarter. From there, the passing game began to take flight as well, and the Eagles finished with 334 yards of total offense, despite getting caught for a loss on 11 plays.
Pettell led Riverside, completing 12 of 17 passes for 240 yards and three touchdowns. Beougher finished with six catches for 124 yards, JeJuan McCalston had four catches for 98 yards and a score, and Jordan ran 12 times for a game-high 78 yards.
Mancuso led Union County in rushing with 63 yards on 10 carries. Rogers was his favored receiver, hauling in 10 passes for 147 yards and two scores, while Gilbert added four receptions for 79 yards.
Riverside hosts Social Circle next week, while Union County will be at home against Greene County.