The night belonged to Neville running back and TCU commit A.J. Allen, but the victory rested in the hands of St. Thomas More quarterback and LSU commit Walker Howard.
Despite a historic 360-yard rushing performance from Allen, the Neville Tigers struggled to close the deal against one of the best prospects in the country in a 35-28 loss at Bill Ruple Stadium Friday night.
Staring at the possibility of falling to 1-3 on the season, St. Thomas More’s Howard trotted onto the field with his team trailing 28-27 with 5:27 remaining in the game. Cool as a cucumber, Howard led a 78-yard drive down the field that featured a fourth-and-13 conversion near midfield and culminated in a nine-yard touchdown pass to Cougar tight end Barron Sawyer with nine seconds remaining.
“He’s a pretty special kid,” St. Thomas More head coach Jim Hightower said. “He’s got a lot of poise.”
Neville head coach Jeff Tannehill gave St. Thomas More credit for the thrilling comeback victory, but he felt like one got away from his Tigers.
“It seemed like every time they needed a big first down their tight end got open,” Tannehill said. “I don’t know if we took our eyes of him or what. (Walker) is everything he’s made out to be. He hit some guys in some tight spaces.”
Howard completed 27-of-39 passes for 329 yards and totaled five touchdowns in the victory. His potential future LSU roommate on the other sideline, Neville offensive tackle Will Campbell, was gutted by the loss, but determined not to let it derail the (3-1) Tigers’ promising start to the season.
“It stings, but we have to bounce back and get ready for West Monroe,” Campbell said.
The game was billed as the top two recruits in Louisiana facing off, but “Mr. Quick Six” just couldn’t help himself. Allen lived up to his nickname and stole the show with an 81-yard touchdown run followed by a rare 99-yard touchdown run in the first quarter that gave the Tigers a 14-0 lead at home.
And it wasn’t like Allen was running through wide-open holes. As good as the offensive line was for the Tigers, which features the No. 2 recruit in Louisiana in Campbell, Allen weaved his way through would-be tacklers with stiff arms, sudden changes in direction and an unmatched burst of speed.
“Wow, what a player,” Hightower said. “My hat’s off to him. We did a very poor job in tackling at times, but I’m going to give him credit for it. We’ve seen some good backs. He’s as good as I’ve ever seen.”
St. Thomas More, the defending Division II State Champion, showed that big game experience, as Howard, the No. 1 recruit in the state, led his team back into the game. After being stuffed on one red zone trip thanks to one of two Henton Roberts sacks in the first half, Howard showcased his elite athleticism early into the second quarter when he rolled out of the pocket and spun to regain his balance before turning on the afterburners near the sideline for the 19-yard touchdown run.
Allen and the Tigers answered in spectacular fashion. Allen rode the mesh in the backfield and patiently made his way to the edge of the field before accelerating and dancing his way through Cougar defenders for a 49-yard touchdown run to make it 21-7 in favor of the Tigers. Allen rushed for 276 yards and three scores on 11 carries in the first two quarters alone.
Allen finished the night with 360 rushing yards and four rushing touchdowns on 20 carries.
Howard connected with Barron Sawyer on a 17-yard receiver screen for a score just before the half ended to bring the Cougars within seven.
St. Thomas More tied the game in the third quarter when Howard completed a nine-yard strike to Jack Hines.
The Tigers regained the lead on a 35-yard touchdown run from Allen. It seemed as though the Cougars would tie it back up in the fourth quarter after a three-yard plunge into the end zone by Howard, but Matthew Fobbs-White blocked the PAT to help the Tigers cling to a 28-27 lead.
Just before Howard led his team on the final scoring drive, and then converted the two-point try that followed, Neville had a drive stall out deep into St. Thomas More territory.
"I felt like offensively we had two drives we should have scored on and we didn't," Tannehill said. "That cost us the ballgame."
Neville was involved the last time the top two recruits in the state squared off, as former Neville quarterback Robert Lane played against former John Curtis defensive tackle Carnell Stewart in the 2004 Class 4A Semifinals.
The Tigers will take on another stiff challenge Friday night when the (2-1) West Monroe Rebels come across the pond.