AMHERST, N.Y. (WIVB) — Having devoured opponents all season long, the reigning state champion Bennett Tigers clawed their way back to the Class AA semifinals with a thrilling victory that came down to the last gasp.
E’Ryan Lawrence ran for a 2-yard touchdown as time expired to complete an 88-yard drive led by Tigers quarterback Sherrad Bennard III, and Bennett prevailed 26-21 against McQuaid Jesuit in a Far West Regional playoff game on Saturday night at Williamsville South.
Lawrence also had a 65-yard TD run in the first half, Connolly Cup finalist and Syracuse commit Ja’Meer Thomas caught a 75-yard TD pass from Bennard, and the QB ran for a 1-yard score early in the fourth quarter, as Bennett (11-0) won its 18th game in a row to reach the West Semifinals for the third consecutive year.
Coach Steve McDuffie said the Tigers exhibited one of his program’s foundational principles, “that adversity doesn’t build character, it reveals character,” he said.
“And they showed the heart of a champion today.”
Ranked No. 4 in the state in Class AA, the Tigers will meet No. 5 Christian Brothers Academy (12-0) on Saturday at Cicero-North Syracuse for a spot in the following weekend’s NYSPHSAA championship game at the JMA Wireless Dome in Syracuse.
“Next week against Christian Brothers is going to be a hell of a battle,” McDuffie said. “But I think we needed this type of game because now we will be motivated and work harder, and that’s what needed to happen for us.”
Bennett won its first 10 games by five touchdowns, leading by more than three touchdowns by halftime, on average. After allowing the opening touchdown on Saturday night against the No. 7-ranked team in the state, the score was tied at 14 at halftime. That was better than a year ago in Rochester, when McQuaid led 14-0 before Bennett rallied in the second half.
“McQuaid is a great program,” McDuffie said. “They have unlimited resources over there. It’s the upper echelon of Rochester, and we expect them to be a good football team in the state every year.”
After falling behind in the fourth quarter, Bennett fumbled on an ensuing series before forcing a punt to set up the winning drive. Bennard, who totaled 342 yards (269 passing, 73 rushing), navigated Bennett into the red zone, aided by a 12-men on the field penalty against McQuaid on a fourth down. The quarterback scrambled down to the 2 and hurried the Tigers to the line for a spike at the very last second.
“By one second, oh my goodness,” McDuffie said. “And you could see they were holding him on the ground, and he got up. By the grace of god, we had one second left on the clock and we were able to stop it. That was really nerve-wracking, let me tell you.”
McDuffie’s initial thought was to throw the ball on the final play, but the Tigers came to the sideline, and “it was a consensus effort by all 11 of them that we are going to run the ball,” McDuffie said, “and if we can’t get two yards we don’t deserve to win the game.”
“When they came over to the sideline,” the coach added, “not one time did I see anything in their eyes where I didn’t believe they could win the football game.”
Buffalo Bills players Damar Hamlin and Eli Ankou watched part of the game from the home sideline, but left before the Tigers went on their winning drive.
Jonah Bronstein joined the WIVB squad in 2022 as a digital sports reporter. The Buffalonian has covered the Bills, Sabres, Bandits, Bisons, colleges, high schools and other notable sporting events in Western New York since 2005, for publications including The Associated Press, The Buffalo News, and Niagara Gazette. Read more of his work here.