Before JPII took the field against archrival Father Ryan on Friday, coach Justin Geisinger and his staff told the players the game was going to come down to one or two plays, you just don't know when.
They turned out to be exactly right. Junior receiver Nicholas Pracht found himself wide open in the Father Ryan secondary, gathered in a pass from junior quarterback Ben Nixon and raced into the end zone to complete a 44-yard scoring play with four seconds left in the game, giving the Knights a 27-23 come-from-behind victory.
They won the Bishop's Cup for the second year in a row in the matchup of the two Catholic high schools, the first time in the series that JPII has beaten its rival in consecutive years. Additionally, for the second year in a row, the game was decided in the final seconds.
"We made one or two extra plays," Geisinger said. "That was the ball game. I can't say how proud I am of this group. It's a team win. We don't have any superstars on our team. ... Everyone has an important role."
Father Ryan took an early lead after recovering a Nixon fumble on the first offensive play of the game. Irish quarterback Seamus O'Connell scored on a 26-yard run, giving the Irish a 7-0 lead.
JPII answered with two touchdowns. The first came on a 9-yard pass from Nixon to sophomore receiver Rory White, tying it 14-14. White finished the game with 11 receptions for 95 yards.
The Knights took the lead with :22 left in the first quarter on a 21-yard scoring pass from Nixon to senior running back Nolan Underhill.
Father Ryan tied the game with a 15-yard touchdown run by senior Jackson Byrd.
JPII took a 20-14 lead on a 12-yard run by Nixon with 2:17 left in the first half. Father Ryan responded with a drive that pushed them to the JPII 17-yard line. A holding penalty and a sack moved the Irish back to the JPII 31, where junior quarterback Seamus O'Connell heaved a pass toward the end zone.
Pracht intercepted the ball at the goal line and was tackled at the one with :39 left. On the next play, Nixon lost a yard on a quarterback sneak and Father Ryan got two points on the safety and the ball.
On the ensuing drive, a pass interference call on JPII gave the Irish the ball on the Knights 25. Three plays later, O'Connell took one last shot at the end zone with 1.3 second left and found Gray Erwin with a 23-yard pass for the go-ahead score.
The nine-point swing left JPII trailing 23-20 at the half.
"Essentially, we thought we had given them those points," Pracht said. "We thought we're only down by three. We can get back those points and get the dub (win)."
In the fourth quarter, JPII's offense put together a 74-yard drive down to the Ryan 11-yard line. But a 28-yard field goal attempt by Nicholas Zanger with 3:54 left went just wide. JPII's defense answered on Father Ryan's next drive, stuffing Irish running back Jackson Byrd on a third-and-2, forcing a punt.
The ball rolled down to the JPII 9 where the Knights took over with 1:02 left.
"I went into the huddle and I said we're going to score on them," said Nixon, who finished the game 26-of-44 for 332 yards and three touchdowns.
The drive looked like it had stalled out at the JPII 36, when Nixon's pass to Rory White fell incomplete on fourth-and-11. But a pass interference penalty on Father Ryan gave the Knights new life. With 14 seconds left in the game, JPII had one last chance.
"We were taking a shot," Geisinger said.
He called a play the team had been practicing all week. Geisinger credited offensive coordinator and receivers coach Matt Clemens with the call.
"He put it in my ear earlier."
"They were following Rory everywhere," Clemens added. "We ran him off and came underneath. It was wide open."
Nixon rolled out of the pocket to his right and threw the ball back across the field to Pracht, who was all alone.
"I was thinking I had to get it out there. I had to get it to him," Nixon said.
"I had a couple of bad plays earlier in the game," Pracht said. "I wanted to make it up. I'm really proud of my teammates."
JPII rolled up 430 yards of total offense, including 334 in the air and 96 on the ground.
Underhill was JPII's leading rusher with 53 yards on nine carries. Besides White's 11 catches, sophomore Brendan Keaton finished the game with seven catches for 127 yards.
"I thought we had a good game plan offensively and defensively," Geisinger said. "I think offensively we kept them on their heels all game. Defensively, we made good adjustments at half."
Beating their rival for two years in a row was amazing, according to Nixon.
"(The win was) a testament to everybody who's worked to change the culture of this program," Geisinger said. "Our entire coaching staff and our entire school. The school is on the rise. It's second-to-none."
Geisinter noted that JPII headmaster Mike Deely talks about the students being happy, healthy and holy.
"We're all three tonight," he said.
JPII improves to 3-1 (1-1 in Division II-AAA). JPII travels to Chattanooga on Friday to take on Baylor in another region game.