One You Won't Forget
It is safe to say that there were more twists and turns in the Sunday Night Football game between the Portland River Hogs and Orlando Sentinels than on a rural back road. A 21-10 lead at halftime is always promising, but in actuality, it was the beginning of the end for the Portland River Hogs. The Sentinels capitalized on halftime adjustments to go on a 16-0 run that went up to the final minute of the game, and was not broken until Portland found a way to kick a field goal to retake the lead they surrendered. Even then, the Sentinels would not crumble. In almost no time, they kicked a field goal for themselves to seal the game, but along with the plentiful lead changes were an enormous amount of turning points that led to an outcome that will be remembered for as long as the RFL remains in existence.
The River Hogs received the opening kickoff under rainy conditions. Wendell Dimanche forced a three-and-out on 3rd & 10 with a 10-yard sack against Hunter Mackey. Orlando also punted on their first possession, which was followed by another round of punts for both teams. Nine minutes into the first quarter, Mackey completed a 68-yard pass to Jackson to put the River Hogs inside goal-to-go territory. Two plays later, he threw for a 10-yard touchdown to score the game’s first points. The Sentinels found the key to success through Tyler McGarity, who completed two separate passes for 23 yards each from DeAndre Wilkins Jr.
Portland’s defense allowed a 42-yard field goal but protected their lead at the start of the 2nd quarter. Following a punt by the River Hogs, Wilkins Jr. flashed his mobility on a scramble for 26 yards, a risky gamble to make in a 3rd & 13 situation. He backed the run with a 27-yard completion to Drayton, but they scored on a 12-yard rushing touchdown by VJ Whitfield. The extra point gave the Sentinels a 10-7 lead.
The home crowd’s fun was extremely short-lived, however. Almost immediately after taking the field, the River Hogs walked off with a touchdown and the lead, earning it on a beautiful, wide-open pass from Mackey to Sylvester Leach. This same combination struck once again on inside the final minute before intermission. Mackey threw a 43-yard pass to Leach that put the River Hogs at the 7-yard line. He ended up scoring his 2nd touchdown on the very next play to put an end to the first half.
Halftime enabled a slight burst of momentum for the Sentinels, who received the 3rd quarter kickoff. The drive was heavily influenced by short and medium passes in an effort to safely get down the field. Orlando’s approach led to a 35-yard field goal only 5 minutes into the quarter to get them within one score of the lead.
The direction of the 2nd half completely changed at the Sentinels’ 30-yard line. With a strong chance of allowing the River Hogs to gain a two-score lead, Orlando needed a playmaker to rise up. McFarland caught a pass for the first down inside positive territory, but he could not hang on to the ball after receiving a crushing, 360-degree knockout hit from Ratliff. In addition to forcing the fumble, Ratliff recovered and gave his offense a chance to tie the score at 21-21.
Orlando ravaged the River Hogs’ defense in only 5 plays, getting the first 57 yards through passing and the remaining 14 on the run game. Whitfield was able to score the 4-yard touchdown with a few minutes to go in the 3rd quarter, The 2-point attempt to tie the game, however, was not as successful. Whitfield was swallowed in the backfield for a loss of 3 yards.
Before they could even blink, the River Hogs were punting the ball back to the Sentinels’ offense. While Orlando also punted, they would get possession once again following a three-and-out by the River Hogs. On the first--and only--play of the drive, Wilkins Jr. threw to Drayton for a crucial 69-yard touchdown. Despite trailing by 21-10 at halftime, the Sentinels had a 5-point advantage with 13 minutes to go in the final quarter.
A predicament turned into a disaster for Portland. On 3rd & 10, Mackey was strip-sacked and the Sentinels recovered at the 25-yard line. Their offense, already powerful enough, started comfortably inside field goal range, but Wilkins Jr. returned the favor by throwing an interception to Session at the 17-yard line, a major play that doused the flames consuming the River Hogs for the entire 2nd half.
The momentum seemed to be on Portland’s side when they completed a 22-yard pass to Lewis at the 42-yard line. However, Mackey followed the play by heaving the ball to the end zone in an unnecessary desperation attempt to score. As a result, Ray intercepted his pass for a touchback. While the Sentinels punted immediately, they accomplished the paramount goal of keeping Portland away from the end zone.
Dimanche’s 8-yard sack to begin the possession did not phase the River Hogs. Mackey was able to throw a 25-yard touch pass to the sidelines on 3rd & 18 to keep the drive alive. The Sentinels’ defense refused to break, though. With 4 minutes to go, they held the River Hogs to a punt at midfield.
The strategy appeared to be a no-brainer in the eyes of most football fans: Run the ball and drain the clock. Throwing caution to the wind, Orlando ignored the conservative approach by throwing bullets down the field. It came with a major price at the 30-yard line when Ajlouni intercepted Wilkins Jr.’s pass, returning it to the River Hogs’ 40.
Lewis began the drive with a 30-yard reception, carrying the River Hogs’ offense past 400 total yards (the Sentinels reached this point earlier in the game). On the other end of the 2-minute warning, the River Hogs were at the 5-yard line on 1st & Goal. For the 2nd time of the half, Mackey was strip-sacked, but Portland recovered, losing 14 precious yards in the process. A 15-yard completion put the River Hogs at the 4-yard line on 4th & Goal. On the play, Mackey threw to the right edge of the end zone to Shropshire, who made the catch for the lead-changing touchdown. Further review of the play confirmed he had possession of the ball while in bounds.
After failing to convert the 2-point conversion, the Sentinels were given 1 minute to win the game. From the 46-yard line, Wilkins Jr. threw a pass for 27 yards to Winborn, which was more than enough to get the Sentinels in field goal range. While the kick was lower than desired, it still passed through the upright. With 33 seconds to go, the Sentinels were back ahead by a 29-27 score, and four straight incompletions on the River Hogs’ final possession ended the game in favor of Orlando.
Following the thrilling victory, the Sentinels’ Head Coach spoke about his team’s onslaught during the 2nd half, stating, “It was like getting the present for Christmas that you wanted, to see the offense and defense settle in and get the job done. It was exhilarating. Being a coach, standing on the sidelines and watching your team shut down an electric offense long enough for your offense to come back and take control of the game...I'm just glad I can rely on them to get the job. done
Written By: Luke Rainey