FRISCO — A last-minute bid at a game-tying drive fell one completion short for the John Paul II football team on Saturday in the inaugural Catholic Bowl.
The Cardinals marched into the red zone in the closing moments of their season opener, but a spirited rally was turned away with one second left in the fourth quarter following an interception by Houston St. Thomas’ Jackson Ward to seal a 38-31 win for the Eagles from the Ford Center at The Star.
Ward’s pick was a rare turnover on an afternoon defined by offense. The Cardinals outgained St. Thomas, 376-357, on the strength of a big day for senior quarterback Drew Forkner. The second-year signal-caller completed 27-of-34 passes for 244 yards and two touchdowns, plus 55 rushing yards and an additional score.
“The offense played their butts off,” said Mario Edwards Sr., John Paul head coach. “They’ve got a leader in Drew Forkner and we had so many other guys stepping up to make plays offensively, even though several of them had to play both ways today.”
Forkner helped engineer a tying drive midway through the fourth quarter — a series that spanned 15 plays and nearly nine minutes of game clock, capped by a 6-yard touchdown pass to senior Ben Boland with 4:22 remaining in the game. Forkner pulled the Cardinals even with St. Thomas at 31-31 following a two-point conversion to sophomore Michael Bahash.
John Paul 31, St Thomas 31 @ 4:22/4QCardinals pull even after Drew Forkner finds Ben Boland for a 6yd TD. After being backed up on the 2 pt try, Forkner again strikes with a toss to Michael Bahash (pictures below). pic.twitter.com/oK9fOakWnN— Matt Welch (@MWelchSLM) September 4, 2021
St. Thomas responded with a long kickoff return by Cameron Price to set up a six-play, 33-yard drive with quarterback Jake Wright nudging the Eagles back in front on a quarterback sneak from 1 yard out with 1:44 to go.
With St. Thomas back in front, 38-31, the Cardinals countered with a return into Eagle territory by senior Jude Nicolaidis. Forkner navigated John Paul as close as the St. Thomas 12-yard line before a penalty backed the Cardinals into first-and-20 from the Eagles’ 22 with 14 seconds left. Two plays later, Ward sealed the St. Thomas win with a pick.
The near-comeback capped a back-and-forth opening to John Paul’s season. The Cardinals had to cancel their Aug. 27 opener against Class 5A powerhouse Lovejoy due to circumstances related to COVID-19. That impacted the timeline for John Paul’s preparations for Saturday’s ballgame as well.
“There were times when we looked like we hadn’t practiced in three weeks,” Edwards said. “It’s no excuse. We didn’t have the time we wanted, but who does? I’m proud of these guys. They’re young and we’ll have them for three years to come. I think they can be pretty doggone good.”
Forkner’s big afternoon was bolstered by a combined 140 yards of offense and a touchdown by junior running back AJ Sibley (78 rushing 62 receiving), plus 53 receiving yards by Boland, 52 receiving yards by Nicolaidis, and 50 receiving yards by junior Justin Blancaflor.
St. Thomas rode the legs of running back Johann Cardenas to the tune of 103 rushing yards and 87 receiving yards, plus two touchdowns, to pave a second half where it outscored John Paul, 21-8. The Cardinals had built a 23-17 halftime lead thanks to first-half touchdowns by Sibley (1-yard run), Blancaflor (37-yard reception) and Forkner (5-yard run), plus a 27-yard field goal by sophomore Jacob Carlson as time expired for a 23-17 lead through two quarters.
HALF: John Paul II 23, Houston St Thomas 17Entertaining 1st half. Jacob Carlson concerts a 27 yd FG as time expires. Kick was set up by a 35 yd completion from Drew Forkner to Jude Nicolaidis on 3rd and long. Clutch drive by JPII to end the half. pic.twitter.com/bO3dX98wGO— Matt Welch (@MWelchSLM) September 4, 2021
A 14-point third quarter reversed momentum in favor of St. Thomas. A frame where the Eagles outgained John Paul 105-35, St. Thomas led 31-23 heading into the fourth quarter following touchdown runs by Cardenas (3 yards) and Wright (3 yards).
“Defensively, we’re playing with a bunch of freshmen and sophomores. They want it, but we just have to show them how to get it,” Edwards said. “I was anxious to see them compete and they definitely, but we’ve got to get better. We’ve got to tackle better than we did today.”
The Cardinals look to bounce back at 7 p.m. Friday at home against Frisco Legacy Christian in their final tune-up before the start of district play the following week.