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Making the Grade: Hershey 28, Exeter Township 27

Hershey made sure its first playoff appearance in a decade was something special.

A furious second-half comeback from a three-touchdown deficit at halftime gave the Trojans an improbable 28-27 victory over Exeter Township Friday night in the District 3 Class 5A opening round at the Concrete Palace.

It was the first playoff victory for the Trojans since 2010. And it was one of those games where the highlights don’t do it justice. You had to see it unfold layer by layer in order to fully appreciate the rally from a 21-0 abyss at intermission.

Hershey moved the ball successfully in the first half but twice turned it over in the red zone, and the Eagles’ combination of quarterback Riley Martinez and wide receiver Carter Redding made Hershey pay with a pair of touchdowns covering 22 and 58 yards.

The clock was quickly becoming Hershey’s enemy as the third quarter melted away, but at least the Trojans threw their hat in the ring on the first of what would eventually become four Angel Cabrera touchdown runs at the 3:24 mark.

One snap after the ensuing kickoff Exeter RB Jayden Zandier, who finished with more than 200 yards rushing, raced 69 yards to restore the Eagles’ three-score cushion. Interesting, though, was the Eagles going for two after lining up for the extra point. The pass failed, and it was 27-7 late in the third quarter.

The final 15 minutes of this game belonged to senior Derek Guzman and the Trojans. Guzman literally wrecked this game on both sides of the ball with an interception, fumble recovery, a 53-yard run on a jet sweep, and a 34-yard reception on a ball where it looked like the defender made the catch in the air but lost the battle on the way down to Guzman.

Hershey scored the final 21 points on Cabrera touchdowns covering 7, 1 and 1 yards — the final TD coming with 2:36 to play, and Cole Goodman’s kick was true to give Hershey its only lead of the night.

Exeter helped out the Trojans by turning the ball over three times in the final 15 minutes on a muffed punt, a fumble late in the fourth quarter and an interception after Hershey took the lead.

Time to hand out some postseason grades.

EXETER TOWNSHIP EAGLES

Quarterback: Sophomore Riley Martinez guided this offense to the brink of success by using his legs to create space in the pocket and picking out the open receiver to make the safe throw. He was also a big help in the running game as a second option. He missed one throw, maybe, on a fourth down to his tight end in the end zone at full stretch. It was still a good throw. The ask to rally this offense with a 70-yard, two-minute drill in the dying seconds was too much for the sophomore. The interception he threw was not a surprise. Grade: B+

Running back: Junior Jayden Zandier literally carved up the Trojans’ defense most of the night, eclipsing 200 yards on the ground and using his speed and tenacity to hit the hole for a half dozen big runs covering 15-plus yards. When he ripped off that 69-yard scamper when nobody touched him at all with 3:00 remaining in the fourth quarter to make it 27-7, it sure looked and smelled like the Eagles were in complete control. His late fumble was his only mistake, but in the fourth quarter it was a killer miscue. Grade: A

Wide receivers: Drew Thomas ran some nifty routes and made a couple sensational grabs in space on his way to a 100-plus yard night with a couple touchdowns. Didn’t really have a wrong step all game. Grade: B+

Offensive line: They took complete control of this game in the second quarter and continued to own the line of scrimmage well into the fourth quarter. Pass blocking was exceptional as well, and they had only one holding penalty. Very few mistakes, really. Grade: A-

Defensive line: They got worn down as the pressure of the game became more intense in the fourth quarter. Hershey did what it wanted to do offensively in the first half, they just turned it over. Pressure on the QB was outstanding, run defense was below average at best. Grade: C+

Linebackers: They were jumping all over the place in the first half, making plays and causing some serious havoc with run blitzes. And in the second half you could hardly find them on the field. The adjustments by Hershey eliminated them the final 24 minutes. Grade: C

Secondary: I feel like they played well and did a good job in run support for the most part. But a few of those big plays were game changers, and they were nowhere to be found or were losing those 50-50 battles. Overall, I still think they did their job. Grade: B

Special teams: Not sure if that was a bad snap on the extra point that turned into a failed two-point conversion. Didn’t look like a bad snap from my chair, looked like an intentional fake to make it 29-7 late in the third quarter. Good defense by Hershey kept it 27-7, and that point would become huge later. The muffed punt and recovery by Hershey was the slippery slope to defeat. Kick return game was excellent, and kicking game was solid. Grade: C+

HERSHEY TROJANS

Quarterback: Wasn’t sure if sophomore Cameron Sweeney was going to make it all 48 minutes. He took a beating at times when he dropped back to pass. He showed more guts than most, made plays with his arms and legs at the exact right time and knew how to get 32 the ball in crunch time. I enjoyed his willingness to keep digging and asking more of himself. Grade: B+

Running back: Angel Cabrera is a 225-pound horse who has a certain style that fits this offense perfectly. Scored all four Trojans touchdowns, had more than 30 carries, eclipsed 100 yards again and in the fourth quarter it took two or more Eagles to bring him down. He was a wrecking ball rolling downhill the final 15 minutes. Grade: A

Wide receivers: Derek Guzman was the best player on the field, refused to let his team lose and never quit making plays. More than 100 receiving and rushing yards, his interception in the end zone was textbook coverage, that 50-50 catch in the fourth quarter was a battle of wills Guzman won and of course he recovered the fumble that led to the winning touchdown drive. It was a special, all-around game you don’t get to witness very often. It was a joy to watch it unfold. I’ll say it again, Guzman wrecked this game on his own. Grade: A+

Offensive line: So when the momentum started rolling downhill, they really did some serious damage. Run blocking was pretty good all night and is their strength. Pass blocking was simply atrocious, and they nearly got their quarterback knocked out of the game. Grade: C+

Defensive line: For most of this game they were getting pushed all over the lot by the Eagles’ offensive line. There was not much on the pass rush front either, as they were getting stood up most of the game. In the dying minutes they produced some pressure and came up with a couple stops that were important. Overall, though, it was a rough night. Grade: C+

Linebackers: Yeah they didn’t make every tackle and were blocked a few times, but without Sean Elliott and Cabrera at linebacker Hershey doesn’t have a chance to score the final 21 points and rally for an improbable victory. When it was looking bleak and Exeter was looking to land knockout punches, Elliott and Cabrera stood tall. Grade: A

Secondary: Derek Guzman plays defensive back, too. That’s all I have to say. Grade: A+

Special teams: On the first drive the Trojans are about to kick a field goal from 27 yards, then the quarter expires and the kick is now into a pretty strong wind. The Trojans went for it, and the Eagles came up with an interception. I understood the decision. Also liked the onsides and short kicks the entire second half. Fumble recovery on the muffed punt by Cory Schaffer Jr. is a hustle play. And he clobbered the kick returner. Cole Goodman was under some serious heat for his PAT attempts and drilled them all. Grade: A-

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