Camden won the game.
It just didn’t feel like it.
The players looked agitated, jumpy, as they lined up to shake hands.
An unbelievable 48 minutes of football that took 3½ hours had worn out their nerves as much as their bodies.
The mood was somber.
“This is a big win,” Panthers quarterback Jalin Brownlee said, sounding as though he was trying to remind himself that his team just beat host Cedar Creek, a West Jersey Constitution Division rival, 42-41, on Saturday afternoon.
It speaks volumes that Brownlee seemed a bit downtrodden. The junior quarterback — a first-year starter — was 18-of-29 passing for 365 yards and five touchdowns. He dazzled with his big arm and quick decisions. He consistently made big plays when his team needed them.
“Just going to my playmakers, reading the coverages, pushing it downfield, and trying to score,” said Brownlee, though it was clear the memory of what had just happened was still too raw to boast about his own performance.
With 10 seconds left in the game, on fourth-and-goal from Camden’s 37-yard line, a scrambling Louie Barrios of Cedar Creek heaved it toward Malachi Melton, who out-jumped a Camden defender in the end zone for his fourth touchdown reception of the fourth quarter.
Four touchdown receptions in one quarter.
This one sent the crowd into a frenzy. Melton’s Cedar Creek teammates charged the end zone.
They all but carried him off the field in glory.
Cedar Creek (2-1) — which trailed, 28-0, in the first half — was within one point. They could kick the extra point and send the game into overtime. Or, they could try for two to win the game.
They chose to kick. A botched snap sent Camden home with the win.
“We have to fix the mistakes that we made. They capitalized on our mistakes, and we have to fix them,” Camden coach Dwayne Savage said, though he wasn’t so diplomatic in his comments to his team.
It was difficult to remember the stretch when Camden scored 28 unanswered points in just over five minutes in the second quarter. Brownlee threw three touchdowns, and Zaire Harris and Miami recruit Tirek Cave grabbed interceptions in that stretch.
The game felt as though it might be headed for the Mercy Rule.
But Camden (2-0) allowed 14 points in the final 4:30 of the half. The first touchdown came on a 46-yard strike from Barrios to Jojo Bermudez. The second was set up by a fumbled snap on a Camden punt. It led to a 1-yard Barrios score with 36 seconds left in the half.
And such was the game.
None of that first-half damage was done by Melton. He had three catches for 12 yards — and no touchdowns — in the first half.
Camden scored on the opening drive of the second half and held Cedar Creek scoreless in the third quarter.
The Panthers took what should have been a comfortable 34-14 lead into the fourth quarter.
But then Melton went to work.
He caught a 69-yard touchdown pass in the first minute of the quarter — breaking a few tackles along the way.
His third touchdown covered 35 yards with 8 minutes, 32 seconds left to make the score 42-35, answering a 51-yard touchdown pass from Brownlee to Alijah Clark. It was Clark’s third touchdown catch of the game.
On Cedar Creek’s final drive, the Pirates worked their way to a first-and-goal at the 9-yard line.
A holding penalty pushed back Cedar Creek to a third-and-goal from the 19, and a sack by Cave set up fourth-and-goal from the 37. That set up the touchdown that could have sparked an epic comeback and a heroic performance for the ages.
“This gives us motivation for the rest of the season,” Cave said. “We have a lot of work to do.”
Camden 0 28 6 8 — 42
Cedar Creek 0 14 0 27 — 41
C: Demir Burns 14 pass from Jalin Brownlee (Hassan Blakney pass from Brownlee)
C: Alijah Clark 17 pass from Brownlee (run failed)
C: Burns 9 pass from Brownlee (Darian Chestnut run)
C: Imir Catoe 59 run (run failed)
CC: Jojo Bermudez 46 pass from Louie Barrios (Taylor Manning kick)
CC: Barrios 1 run (Manning kick)
C: Clark 11 pass from Brownlee (pass failed)
CC: Malachi Melton 69 pass from Barrios (Manning kick)
CC: Melton 25 pass from Barrios (Manning kick)
C: Clark 51 pass from Brownlee (Da’Vion Harper pass from Brownlee)
CC: Melton 35 pass from Barrios (Manning kick)