It was homecoming for McKinley and also West St. John coach Robert Valdez, a former Southern University football player who served as McKinley’s coach in 2007.

“Austin Howard had a great passing game and he’s only a 14-year-old sophomore,” Valdez said. “He led us on a gutty drive to end the first half, and we really got going in the third quarter. This was a big win for our program. My guys played hard and really stepped up on defense.”

McKinley’s offense was stymied for most of the game, but the Panthers produced 14 points in the fourth quarter to get back in the game. McKinley’s Cody Swain had a 90-yard interception return for a score and Brendan Willis ran for two points to put McKinley within 20-8 with 7:55 left.

McKinley’s defense stiffened and forced a quick punt and the offense drove 56 yards in nine plays. McKinley quarterback Jarred Hayes passed 25 yards to Swain on a crucial fourth-and-18. Two plays later, Lenard Tillery scored on a 10-yard run. The two-point conversion failed and West St. John led 20-14 with 3:06 remaining.

McKinley got the ball back one more time but failed to move the ball. McKinley drops to 2-2, while West St. John improves to 3-1.

“We didn’t play until the last few minutes of the game,” McKinley coach Robert Signater Sr. said. “Our defense should have done better. My hat goes off to West St. John. They played a good game. We’ve got to keep working.”

Howard engineered a 12-play, 92-yard drive that took up the final 3:13 of the first half. Howard threw a left screen pass to Jairus Moll for a 44-yard gain. He kept the drive alive with a 20-yard completion to Lawrence Williams on a fourth-and-15.

On the final play of the half, Howard took a shotgun snap, sprinted left, tried to throw, looked to run and then threw across his body for a 14-yard touchdown to Tevin Smith. West St. John faked the PAT, and holder Moll ran a bootleg around right end for an 8-0 lead.

The Rams scored on their two drives in the third quarter, moving 63 yards in eight plays and 69 yards in 10 plays.

Howard completed six of seven passes in those drives. Howard tossed scoring passes of 5 and 14 yards to Moll. The third TD came with 57.7 seconds left in the third quarter. The Rams missed both PATs. Moll had six catches for 107 yards. Kylum Favorite led the Rams with 76 rushing yards on 18 carries. Howard completed 15-of-21 passes for 223 yards with the one interception.

McKinley was limited to seven first downs. Tyrone Scott rushed for 29 yards on six carries. Swain had five catches for 62 yards. Hayes completed 6-of-14 passes for 48 yards.

Javen Toney made a first-quarter interception for the Rams. West St. John drove inside the McKinley 10-yard line in the first half, but a bad snap was scooped up by McKinley’s Jivaun Wade, who returned the ball 39 yards to midfield.