McDonogh School football coach Dom Damico said during preseason his starting unit is as good as any team in the country. In their season opener Saturday, the Eagle reserves showed their worth.

McDonogh defeated Gonzaga College, 32-29, at Buchanan Field in the nation’s capital. Sophomore running back Jabriel Johnson rushed for 119 yards and a touchdown for the Eagles (1-0 overall), and DeJuan Ellis and senior wideout Marquis Thornes each scored twice.

The Owings Mills school received major contributions from several backups to hold off Gonzaga, a perennial contender in the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference and two-time District city champs. 

With the U.S. Capitol less than a half-mile away from Gonzaga’s campus, McDonogh showed its one of the best teams in the DMV region (District, Maryland and northern Virginia).

“Believe the hype,” shouted Eagle junior wide receiver/defensive back BJ Farrare after the post-game huddle.

Before his team went to the sidelines Saturday, Damico had two simple requests. 

“Make sure you lineup right and play aggressive,” said Damico, whose team is ranked No. 3 in the state media Top 25 preseason poll. “We did that 95-percent of the time. It was a tough game. It was hot, it was probably 110 degrees on the field and our kids were cramping up. They were too, but our kids really had a gut check.”

McDonogh didn’t have senior running Mylique McGriff for most of the second half and starting quarterback Ellis missed a couple of series due to cramping. The Eagles offense didn’t crumbled, thanks to Johnson and junior Nathan Walsh.

Walsh threw two second half touchdown pass, both to Thornes. Johnson had 88 yards in the second half, including a key 49-yard touchdown run.

“We always work hard and push each other,” said Johnson, who had 12 of his 19 carries in the second half. “I just stepped up.”

“Everyone played their hearts out and I’m just happy to be a part of it,” said Walsh. “It was awesome to see everyone step up and play as hard as we did.”

Walsh said “he was shaking” when Damico called for him after Ellis came off the field with McDonogh at Gonzaga’s 10-yard line. He lofted a pass to the corner of the end zone where the 6-foot-4 Thornes pulled it down, giving McDonogh a 20-14 lead with 7 minutes, 38 seconds left in the third.

The Eagles extended the lead to 26-12 early in the fourth as Walsh returned for Ellis and put another throw in the corner for Thomas (5 catches for 57 yards) to snatch, capping a 10-play, 55-yard drive. Gonzaga came back with a 6-yard touchdown run from Tyree Randolph (106 yards, 3 TDs) to close to within 26-21, but McDonogh answered.

Ellis scampered 4 yards on 3rd-and-9, but a late hit penalty against Gonzaga gave McDonogh a first down. Johnson slipped around a couple of would-be tackles, burst into the open and ran down the sidelines for a 49-yard touchdown, putting McDonogh back up two scores. 

“Some key guys made plays in critical situations,” said Damico. “You’re throwing a quarterback in there, throw some fades, execute the offense and Walsh did that. Jabriel was unbelievable busting those runs and really set the pace in the first quarter.”

Trailing, Gonzaga quickened the pace against the weary Eagles defense. The northeast Washington school went 62 yards in 65 seconds, capped by Sam Brown’s 7-yard strike to Jirhe Love. Brown’s two-point conversion pass to Miles Brown put Gonzaga within a field goal.

The hosts didn’t touch the ball again as McDonogh ran out the final 3:21 of regulation. Ellis sealed the game with a 14-yard run on 3rd-and-7 with 2:07 remaining (Gonzaga had no timeouts left). 

A year ago, Ellis was the starting quarterback for northern Virginia’s Bishop O’Connell, which absorbed a 38-0 loss to McDonogh. Ellis, who recently committed to Virginia Tech, produced 202 yards (123 passing, 79 rushing) in his debut with McDonogh Saturday.

“He’s a special athlete, special speed set. You can have all the angles on him, he just outruns them,” said Damico. “I didn’t know how tough he was until today. I knew how fast he was, but when we needed big plays, he made them.”

“Things happen in life and you have to push through it,” said Ellis. “I started something so I had to finish it.”

Ellis got McDonogh’s first score of 2016, with a four-yard run. Down 14-7 late in the first half, Ellis beat Gonzaga’s defense to the corner of the end zone, bringing McDonogh even.

The Eagles opened the second half impressively, advancing the ball from its 29 to Gonzaga’s 16. McGriff (80 yards), arguably the best running back in the MIAA A, went down after a 9-yard run inside the 10. The following play, Ellis went down. 

Despite the cramping and several players going both ways in the intense heat, McDonogh refused to quit.

“I’d go to war with these guys any day. We just did a lot of the little things,” said senior two-way linemen Jordan McNair. “Today, it was just heart. We all believed in each other and hold each other accountable.”

Damico said Saturday’s win was one of the biggest in his three decade tenure at McDonogh. The Eagles, who lost their previous four matches with Gonzaga, got a break with a majority of their sidelines shaded.

They made all the breaks on the field as well. Junior reserve wide out Jack Simmons had a 47-yard reception, highlighting McDonogh’s game-tying scoring series.

Defensively, Darius Pickett had an interception and junior Griffin Catlett recorded a sack. Andrew Frailer recovered a fumble that was forced by senior linebacker Deandre Tackett.

mcdonogh group“No one believed in us, everyone on twitter was saying we’re going to lose,” said junior two-way linemen PJ Mustipher. “We’re a family. We don’t have that many players, so when it was gut check time, no one backed away.”

McDonogh School 32, Gonzaga College (D.C.) 29

McDonogh 7 7 6 12 – 32

Gonzaga 7 7 0 15 – 29

First quarter

Gonzaga – Randolph 9 run (Kemp kick)

McDonogh – Ellis 4 run (Lawrence kick)

Second quarter

Gonzaga – Randolph 16 run (Kemp kick)

McDonogh – Ellis 5 run (Lawrence kick)

Third quarter

McDonogh – Thornes 10 pass from Walsh (kick blocked)

Fourth quarter

McDonogh – Thornes 5 pass from Walsh (run failed)

Gonzaga – Randolph 6 run (Kemp kick)

McDonogh – Johnson 49 run (pass failed)

Gonzaga – Love 7 pass from Sam Brown (Miles Brown pass from Sam Brown)