By STEVE GALLUZZO | Sports Editor
In the minds of Palisades High players and coaches, Friday night’s varsity football game will long be remembered as “the one that got away.”
The Dolphins ran the ball at will in the first half to build a 19-14 lead, but a few breakdowns in the secondary and a blown kickoff coverage cost them in a 42-32 defeat to host Westchester that snapped their seven-game winning streak.
When it was over, Palisades head coach Tim Hyde pulled no punches.
“We knew this would be a perimeter game and we got torched,” Hyde said. “They had a two-play and a three-play scoring drive, which is unreal considering the way we’ve played defense. They’re fast, they’re athletic, they can score from anywhere and could easily compete in Division I. We lost a chance to get a top four [playoff] seed.”
Palisades gained 429 yards on the ground, its second-highest rushing output of the season, and over half of it came courtesy of senior tailback Innocent Okoh, who carried the ball a career-most 37 times for a career-high 253 yards and two touchdowns. He is averaging 160.2 yards per game and is the City Division I rushing leader with 1,442 yards and 17 touchdowns. Since moving up to varsity halfway through his sophomore season, Okoh has amassed 2,225 yards in 24 games.
Okoh had 165 yards by halftime Friday and capped Palisades’ first drive, a methodical 13-play, 78-yard march with a seven-yard scoring run. Jake Taitelman’s extra-point kick was blocked.
Westchester responded quickly on a 19-yard scoring pass from Jonathan Murphy to Kalen Simmons, but Oscar Romero batted down Murphy’s pass on the two-point try to keep it tied 6-6.
On its third possession, Palisades drove 75 yards in 15 plays, regaining the lead on Jonah Manheim’s quarterback sneak.
Murphy connected with Simmons again on a 43-yard scoring pass and Estabon Bozeman ran for the two-point conversion.
It took the Dolphins (7-2 overall, 3-1 in league) only two plays and 49 seconds to respond, as Okoh ducked, dodged and hurdled his way for a 48-yard touchdown. Taitelman’s extra point was good and Palisades was five points ahead despite not attempting a pass in the first two quarters.
“They’ve got a real good running game and we couldn’t stop it in the first half,” said Murphy, who threw for 302 yards and three scores, upping his season totals to 2,084 yards and 20 touchdowns. “Scoring first in the second half was huge for us. They got pressure on me at times, but I’ve learned to keep my eyes downfield. I trust my receivers to make plays.”
After forcing a three-and-out on Palisades’ first possession of the third quarter, the Comets (7-2, 3-1) drove 53 yards in three plays, taking a 20-19 lead on Jamarie Blakey’s 12-yard delayed handoff. Another three-and-out by the Dolphins gave Westchester the ball back near midfield, but Palisades’ defense stiffened. Late in the third quarter the Dolphins drove to the Westchester 16 and were poised to steal the lead back, but a personal foul penalty pushed them back 15 yards and they ultimately turned the ball over on downs.
“That was a crucial point in the game,” Hyde admitted. “We had all the momentum, but we had two bad drives back-to-back to start the second half and then came away with zero points when we got in the red zone.”
Desmon Johnson’s 13-yard run padded Westchester’s lead with time winding down in the third quarter, but Palisades’ offense reawakened and Manheim’s four-yard keeper ended an 11-play, 65-yard drive that pulled the Dolphins within one point with 8:27 left in the fourth quarter.
“Yeah, it was a lot tougher with them stacking the box,” said Okoh, who was held to 88 yards in the second half. “I was tired a little bit, but we condition a lot during practice. It’s great because Marrio Lofton can come in at any time to give me a breather and I can give him a breather as well.”
Lofton ran 22 times for 128 yards and has 455 yards in 74 carries this season (6.1 yards per rush). He also returned two kickoffs for 35 yards.
Simmons outjumped Palisades defensive back Cameron Bailey along the sideline for a 50-yard gain, then Murphy stepped up in the pocket and found Blakey over the middle from 15 yards out on 4th-and-10. Johnson caught the two-point conversion pass to make it 34-25 with 5:32 left.
The Dolphins were missing free safety Aaron Butler and cornerback Kaelynn Lamothe, senior defensive starters sidelined with injuries.
“We had a great run-stopping defense, but it was ultimately up to the defensive backs to stop the long ball and unfortunately having Aaron and Kaelynn out hurt us immensely,” said linebacker Quinn Perry, who led Palisades with 12 tackles and a pass deflection, had a 25-yard reception at tight end and punted three times for 100 yards.
Trailing by two scores, Palisades relied on the rocket arm of sophomore quarterback Tommy Beattie to pick up yardarge through the air.
He completed a 15-yard strike to Pierre Kaku for a first down, then ran for eight yards to move the chains across midfield. Lofton ran off tackle for another first down, but three subsequent runs gained only three yards and on fourth down Beattie threw a desperation pass to wide receiver Alex Vaupen, who made a juggling catch between two defenders at the 10-yard line and scooted up the sideline for a touchdown. Taitelman’s extra point kick cut Palisades’ deficit to 34-32 with 2:27 remaining.
The Dolphins lined up for what looked like an onside kick, but Taitelman boomed the ball deep. Johnson caught it at the Comets’ 10, found a seam and sprinted 90 yards for a touchdown. Blakely took a delayed hand-off and broke the plane of the goal line on the two-point conversion to give Westchester an insurmountable 10-point lead.
One sack and three incompletions later, Westchester regained possession at the Dolphins’ 35-yard line and ran out the clock to celebrate its first triumph over Palisades since a 50-34 win in 2011. The Comets, who are vying for a high seed in the Division II playoffs, were outscored 119-21 in three previous meetings against the Hyde-coached Dolphins.
“Tommy gives us a much better option in the passing game but still we left some plays out there,” Pali High offensive coordinator Rocky Montz said. “We’ve got to be able to beat single-man coverage.”
Despite losing starting quarterback Gabe Galef to injury three plays into the season, Palisades is off to its best start since 2000 when it won eight of its first nine games before being routed by Westchester, 44-16, in its league finale before losing to Birmingham, 43-37, in the first round of the City’s upper division playoffs to wind up 8-3.
Although they no longer can win the Western League outright, the Dolphins can earn a share of the title with a road victory next Friday at archrival Venice. A Palisades win coupled with a Westchester victory over Fairfax would create a three-way tie atop the standings. The Dolphins are also in contention for a top eight seed in the Division I playoffs, which would earn them a home game in the first round.
“Palisades-Venice should be a great matchup,” predicted Westchester Coach Wyatt Henderson, whose team lost to the Gondos 27-26 on Oct. 14. “Both teams have playmakers, but Pali’s line is tremendous and No. 5 (Okoh) runs as well as anyone in this league. I give them a great chance.”
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