WATERTOWN — The Red and Black scored four touchdowns in Watertown’s 27-20 victory over Mohawk Valley on Saturday night, but Connor Brown’s 85-yard pick-six with 3:35 left in the third quarter proved to be the most important. Having jumped the route on a Shawn Johnson pass intended for Chris Melchoir in the flat, Brown intercepted the ball cleanly and took off for the end zone, reaching it with ease.
“No looking back,” Brown said of the play.
The same could be said of Watertown’s season as a whole. After an 0-3 start the Red and Black (6-3 overall) have won six straight and — thanks to a 33-32 Plattsburgh loss to Glens Falls — has secured the No. 2 seed and a home game in the first round of the Empire Football League playoffs.
It’s still unclear who the Red and Black will play in that first round Sept. 28, Watertown could possibly be welcoming back Mohawk Valley to the Alex T. Duffy Fairgrounds. Saturday’s contest, though, against the Nighthawks proved to be as good of a test as any for the playoff-bound Red and Black.
Between Johnson under center and J’Von Evans in the backfield, the Nighthawks displayed the most dynamic offense Watertown has seen. Johnson finished 10-for-20 with 160 passing yards and two passing touchdowns. Even with the Red and Black’s aggressive pass rush, Johnson danced around the backfield, challenging the Red and Black defenders to catch him. And if it wasn’t Johnson causing mayhem it was Evans. The 5-foot-9, 190-pound running back finished with 168 rushing yards on 12 carries, 47 receiving yards and a touchdown. The combination of Johnson and Evans helped Mohawk Valley tie the game at 14-14 in the final two minutes of the first half on back-to-back scores about a minute and a half apart.
Once the Red and Black pass rushers focused more on containment and less on charging the quarterback, they began to limit what Johnson and Evans were able to do. “Middle linebackers started pushing that inside more because (Johnson) was stepping up in the middle and getting that inside crease, he wasn’t bouncing on the outside, he was stepping up middle lane,” Brown said. “So, we knew that was what he was doing so we had the inside backers fill a little harder.”
Keeping Johnson in the pocket allowed the edge rushers to reach him quicker. As a result the Red and Black sacked Johnson four times, two by Ky Sawyer, including one that knocked Johnson out of the game in the final minute and a half.
“It was hard [to contain Johnson], you just have to read his eyes, he bounces back and forth and he bases what he does on what you’re doing,” Sawyer said. “He’s just smart.”
Tim Webber came in for Johnson following Sawyer’s second sack and threw a game-ending interception to linebacker Samuel Mooney right in front of the visitor’s sideline.
In total, the Red and Black defense amassed four sacks, one fumble recovery and three interceptions in the win. “Our core group has been playing together for years and as soon as one of us does something it’s like we all did it,” Sawyer said.
For the second consecutive week the Red and Black won a close game despite being short-handed. And the defense became even more short-handed Saturday when the officials ejected linebacker Derrek Dalton, along with Mohawk Valley defensive back Al Heath, midway through the third quarter — Dalton had already made one key interception in the game.
“I give this team credit for continuing to try, that’s what this is all about, but with all the bodies we had playing out of position and missing the people that normally are just aces, it’s tough,” Red and Black coach George Ashcraft said. “But this team rose to the occasion for the last five games that we’ve played and won.”
Earning a forfeit victory next week against Seaway Valley, the Red and Black will finish its regular season 7-3.