Judging by their quiet demeanor as they left the field Saturday, one never would have guessed the Wilde Lake Wildecats had just won their biggest football game in five years.
Then again, while falling behind and eventually hanging on for a 14-12, Class 2A semifinal victory over visiting Douglass, the Wildecats bore little resemblance to the team that had outscored its previous 11 victims by an average of 33 points.
These Wildecats missed blocks, blew tackles and let their frustration show while drawing eight penalties. The defense gave up a season-high 14 first downs and 205 yards. The offense managed a season-low 104. For the first time this season, Wilde Lake surrendered two touchdowns. And both scores came on the ground, something that never happened before Saturday.
The Wildecats still could look at the bright side. They are 12-0 and headed for the matchup they've been dreaming about for weeks.
They will go after their first state title since 1985 at 7:30 Friday night against Damascus (Montgomery County) at South Carroll High School. A victory over the Hornets would be doubly sweet. It would complete Wilde Lake's first-ever unbeaten season and would avenge last year's 2A semifinal loss to Damascus.
But the grins and high-fives were scarce in Wilde Lake's post-game locker room, where Coach Doug DuVall delivered a stern summation of a victory that best could be described as shaky.
The Wildecats, who are accustomed to silencing opponents by halftime, were clearly humbled by their brush with defeat. They sounded more like escapees than victors.
"We haven't played anyone that good this year," said linebacker Denny Trager. "They weren't real big. They weren't a great football team. They were just a bunch of tough guys who came in here with something to prove.
We were fortunate with that last penalty."
The game, which was marred by 12 penalties, ultimately turned on a yellow flag in the final seconds.
With 27 seconds left, Douglass (10-2) quarterback Erick Douglas, who led the Eagles' wishbone attack wonderfully, completed a five-minute, 73-yard drive with a 1-yard run on fourth down to cut Wilde Lake's lead to 14-12.
Then, as the pile was untangling on the goal line, a Douglass player threw a punch at a Wilde Lake player, resulting in a critical 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty against the Prince George's County team.
The penalty was assessed on the all-important two-point conversion attempt, moving the ball to the Wildecats' 18. The Eagles ran a quick pitch to the right, but linebacker Brent Guyton chased down Dave Fant on the 15 to preserve the victory.
Long before its stirring fourth-quarter drive -- highlighted by Fant's 15-yard run on fourth-and-8 from the Wilde Lake 21 -- Douglass had gotten Wilde Lake's attention. On the game's first possession, the Eagles drove 62 yards. When Charles Tucker scored from two yards out to give the Eagles a 6-0 lead, Wilde Lake found itself behind for the first time this year.
The Eagles then spent most of the day stuffing Wilde Lake's offense.
Led by a small but quick defensive line that swarmed continuously in Wilde Lake's backfield, Douglass held halfback Raphael Wall (1,691 yards, 28 TDs) to just 25 yards on 15 carries and restricted Wilde Lake to eight first downs and 1.7 yards per rushing attempt. Both were season lows. Wilde Lake punted a season-high six times.
Douglass dropped Wilde Lake running backs for losses 11 times. Wall was stopped seven times behind the line of scrimmage.
"That's how they got here, with that defensive line chopping down blockers and getting into the backfield," DuVall said. "I've never seen a high school team do it as well as them."
When the Wildecats analyze the film, though, they'll probably dissect the game in terms of their own mistakes, of which there were many.
The Wildecats' eight penalties came at a cost of 80 yards, including six for 60 in the second half, when they grew increasingly frustrated. They committed two 15-yarders for face-masking and a personal foul during the Eagles' final drive.
Even Phil White, the junior quarterback who made some of the game's biggest plays, wasn't immune. Early in the fourth period with Wilde Lake clinging to a 7-6 lead, he threw an ill-advised sideline pass that Tucker intercepted and might have returned 80 yards for a touchdown had wideout Oba McMillan not tackled him immediately. It was White's first interception in two months.
"I knew it was going to be tough scoring on them, because their defensive line was off the ball so quick," White said. "I think our line was shocked at the way their defensive line was getting into our backfield.
They almost took the handoff from me a couple of times."
"I don't mind physical mistakes. If you get beat on a block, that's OK," DuVall said. "The things that drive me up the wall are mental errors. All those penalties, no excuse for them. We didn't play the way we are capable.
We didn't block. We didn't do the things that got us here."