In a game that slipped through both teams' hands almost as many times as wayward snaps scooted past quarterbacks, Houston C.E. King finally got a grip in the third overtime.
The Panthers scored the tying touchdown in the closing seconds of regulation and produced the only points in three extra sessions, rallying to beat Rudder 22-16 in an exciting but mistake-filled nondistrict football game at Merrill Green Stadium on Friday night.
Rudder overcame a sputtering offense and an injury to its starting quarterback to take the lead in the fourth quarter. Replacement quarterback Brendan Steptoe scored on a 32-yard run early in the fourth. Austin Baron's extra-point kick sailed wide left to leave the Rangers' lead at 13-9.
Baron connected on a 20-yard field goal midway through the fourth quarter to stretch the advantage to 16-9, and Rudder seemed to be on its way to a victory in its last game before starting District 16-4A play.
The Panthers had failed to score on seven consecutive possessions despite making two trips inside the Rudder 10-yard line before King put together a stunning drive in the closing minutes of regulation.
C.E. King marched 73 yards in 12 plays, converting a fourth-and-seven with a 25-yard pass from John Portillo to Carlos Smith. Three plays later the Panthers faced fourth-and-five when Portillo connected with Barnard Mackey on a 14-yard touchdown pass. Jesus Guerrero kicked the extra point to make it 16-16 with 27 seconds remaining in regulation.
Neither team came close to scoring in the first overtime. Rudder's Kenjuan Kelley sacked Portillo on fourth down to stop the Panthers. But the Rangers missed a chance with their possession when Dakota Tates was out of bounds when he secured Steptoe's fourth-down pass that would have produced a first down at the 12.
Rudder had the ball first in the second extra session and started well when Will Martin ran for 11 yards on an end-around. However, the Rangers lost a couple of yards before Baron attempted a 33-yard field goal that was blocked.
The Panthers came close to scoring in the second overtime, but instead came up empty on their third consecutive trip inside the 10. Portillo's 17-yard pass to Smith gave King a first down at the 8, but defensive end Darian Madkins stopped Dominique Bell for a 3-yard loss and then nose guard Skylar Perez pounced on the ball when a low snap got away from Portillo.
It was one of several big plays by Perez. He helped the Rangers score their first touchdown with a crushing block on a 51-yard punt return by Baron in the second quarter.
Rudder's series of great escapes ended in the third overtime when Portillo threw a 14-yard touchdown pass to Smith. The Panthers' two-point conversion pass fell incomplete, leaving the score at 22-16.
The Rangers' last possession began with a 3-yard pass from Steptoe to Martin and a 3-yard run by Tre Guyton. Facing third-and-four, Steptoe was forced into an incompletion under heavy pressure from linebacker Casey Sonier.
Rudder senior defensive lineman David Wilganowski, who returned to lead the Rangers onto the field after collapsing on the same field two weeks earlier, joined the Rudder cheerleaders imploring the fans to make noise as the Rangers prepared for fourth down. Steptoe lofted a pass intended for Martin in the end zone, but King cornerback Darius James, who is few inches taller than Martin, knocked the ball to the ground.
The Rangers dropped to 1-2-1. King improved to 2-1, getting revenge for a 24-6 home loss to Rudder last season.
"You get chances and don't cash in ... you can't do that against good teams," Rudder coach C.M. Pier said. "I told the guys that they were going to make some plays, but we had to keep them from making the big plays. We've got some work that we've got to do."
Botched snaps in shotgun formation frustrated both teams and told the story of a sloppy first half. Rudder managed two first downs on its opening possession, but stalled at the King 36. The Rangers got the ball back at their 15, but gave up a safety when punter Baron had to leap to tip a high snap and was tackled in the end zone.
King took advantage of a short punt on the ensuing free kick, driving 40 yards in eight plays. Portillo found Mackey for 19 yards on third-and-eight, and Mackey later scored on a 5-yard run to make it 9-0.
Baron's punt return pulled Rudder within 9-7 early in the second quarter. That score held until halftime because of a wacky segment by the King offense. The Panthers used a couple of big runs and an unsportsmanlike penalty against Rudder to set up a first down at the 8, at which point weirdness set in.
The Panthers committed three false starts, lost 39 yards on two bad snaps and somehow managed to turn the ball over on downs back at the 41-yard line.
Rudder starting quarterback Jarmarcus Davenport was injured late in the third quarter. The Rangers had to punt on that possession, but cornerback Isaiah Johnson supplied a spark with a 23-yard interception return a couple of plays after Davenport was taken off the field on a cart.
Steptoe and the offense needed just four plays to drive 49 yards and cash in on the turnover. Steptoe rolled to his left, then cut back and won a race to the right corner of the end zone for a 32-yard touchdown.