CARLISLE — When Altoona punted the football with seven minutes left to play down 35-27, it looked like Carlisle was about to escape by the skin of its teeth with a win.
The Thundering Herd had battled back from a 13-0 deficit and four lost fumbles to take the lead three times and had taken a commanding eight-point lead just minutes before on Ben Nix’s 52-yard touchdown sprint.
With the offense humming and the defense putting up a few big stands in a row, it appeared all Brett Ickes’ squad had to do was string a few first downs together and milk the clock to leave Ken Millen Stadium with a crucial Mid-Penn Commonwealth victory Friday night.
But Carlisle went three-and-out on the potential game-icing drive and punted. And that’s when Mitch Lawhead unleashed one of the best runs of the season.
The 5-foot-10 running back took the handoff on the first play of the drive and his 19th carry of the night, with 4:33 to play, and viciously threw aside two would-be Herd tacklers with wicked stiff arms before sprinting 77 yards to pay dirt.
Connor McCarthy then completed a pass for the tying two-point conversion.
The run forced overtime after both teams traded punts to end regulation.
They also traded touchdowns in the first overtime. Then Altoona scored to go up 49-42 before senior linebacker Jonah Brandt swatted down Cole Wolaver’s pass on fourth-and-5 to hand the Lions a 49-42 win, the team’s first road win in two years and first in the Commonwealth in their return to the league.
“The thing about Mitch is he’s our captain, he was a captain as a junior,” Mountain Lions coach Nick Felus said. “He’s a warrior, he’s a competitor, he’s a weight-room guy, he’s a summer-conditioning guy. If you watch him practice, that’s why he makes plays like that. He sets an example for the rest of our team.
“That run was just phenomenal. That was just a great, athletic, individual play.”
For Carlisle, it was a wasted game. Two fumbles on the first two drives of the game put the Herd (3-3, 0-2) in a 13-0 hole that they dug out of suddenly.
The teams swapped TDs as Carlisle found its footing with the run game. Junior Trystin Sulich pounded away for 33 carries, 213 yards and three touchdowns, including one in OT to tie it and a 74-yard burst in the second quarter. But he also fumbled twice.
Ben Nix also added two scores on 10 carries, finishing with 136 yards.
TOUCHDOWN: Ben Nix gets the last two carries and punches it in from 6 yards out. Carlisle now trails 13-7 with 0:31 left in 1Q. First good Herd drive tonight (you know... not turning it over helps). pic.twitter.com/evgXsTXld5— Jake Adams (@jakeadams520) September 28, 2018
TOUCHDOWN: Sulich 4 yard TD. 42-35 Carlisle. pic.twitter.com/GRWu8YsQxL— Jake Adams (@jakeadams520) September 29, 2018
And the Lions (3-3, 1-2) did their best to hand the game back at times, with eight nearly costly penalties that allowed Carlisle to hang on.
“We can’t turn the ball over four times. It led to 28 points, basically,” Ickes said. “The positive is the kids kept fighting, kept fighting and kept fighting. And give it to Altoona, they never gave up either.”
But first-half tackling woes also allowed Altoona to break a couple big plays as McCarthy worked the screen game well. He finished 14-of-28 for 238 yards, three first-half touchdowns and a third-quarter pick.
Lawhead took over, though, when the passing game slowed down. The senior ran 27 times for 156 yards and scored the Mountain Lions’ final three touchdowns.
“All week we just talked about finishing, finishing — that’s where we are in the program,” Felus said. “We’re close, we were competing but we weren’t finishing.”
For Carlisle, the loss is a devastating blow for a team that had playoff aspirations. The Herd may not get in with five wins, and the final four games include winless Cumberland Valley, suddenly dangerous Chambersburg, Harrisburg and CD East. Where two (and preferably three) wins comes from is tough to see.
Altoona’s win was all the more impressive after senior RB/LB Adam Sinisi collapsed after Altoona took a 20-14 lead midway through the second quarter. Part of the kickoff unit, the team was lining up to kick deep when he simply fell over.
For a bit things seemed calm, but then a stretcher was called and an ambulance was brought on the field. He appeared to pass out under care from athletic trainers for a bit.
But Felus said after the game that he was stable and the team was going to visit him in the hospital upon leaving the stadium. What happened was not known at the time.
“We know he’s stable right now — he’s hopefully going to be fine,” Felus said. “He’s stable, that’s all we know. … We’re a family — our kids are close, we’re a tight-knit group.”