The most impactful play Patrick Mensah made Saturday night wasn’t the fumble he forced at the goal line to negate a touchdown on the opening drive of the Allstate Sugar Bowl/LHSAA Division I football state championship, and it wasn’t his game-winning interception in the fourth quarter to clinch Catholic High’s 20-14 victory over John Curtis.
It was the muffed punt he tried and failed to pick up, not once, but twice, before a Curtis defender dove on the ball in the end zone and celebrated what he thought was a 7-0 lead.
Mensah celebrated, too. He knew the rule.
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Earlier this year against East Ascension, the Bears were on the other end of a similar play. The official ruling is a touchback as soon as the ball crosses the goal line.
Mensah was making an honest effort to scoop the bouncing ball, but by kicking it backward for 30 yards, the Bears return specialist inadvertently saved a touchdown and gave Catholic better field position.
Five plays later, quarterback Cameron Dartez hit Austan Hood on a short slant route that Hood took for a 65-yard touchdown.
“It was a big momentum swing for us in a positive way,” Dartez said of the touchdown pass. “It helped us keep that juice though the entire game, knowing we can do what we normally do.”
Just like that, Catholic was on its way to the school’s second state title in three years.
“When all the chips were against us at the beginning of the season — we had a new coach, new defense, a new D-line — all the people doubted us all year and especially this game playing John Curtis," Mensah said. "We had a chip on our shoulder the whole game.”
It’s hard to say if Mensah’s lucky bounce landed differently whether the final outcome would be the same, but it’s impossible to ignore a 14-point swing in a game decided by only six points.
Before that play, Catholic’s offense struggled to gain footing against the winningest program in Louisiana history. Up to that point, the Bears averaged just 2.5 yards per play.
After the muff, that number skyrocketed to 5.9 yards per play.
Dartez led the way for the offense, throwing for 206 yards and the lone score on 22-of-31 passing. He was named Catholic’s Most Outstanding Player.
Running back Beau Griffon had Catholic’s other touchdown when he punched in a 2-yard run in the third quarter, set up by none other than Mensah, who returned a punt 57 yards on the previous play.
Kicker Preston Stafford also had a pair of fourth-quarter field goals to give the Bears the edge needed for the win.
Defensively, the Bears did much of what they did to get to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in the first place.
Coming into Saturday, Catholic allowed opponents nine points in three previous playoff games. Against the Patriots, the Bears had seven tackles for loss, one sack, two forced fumbles, two interceptions and a pass break-up.
John Curtis’ 14 points scored were its lowest against Louisiana teams this season.
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If there’s a downside to Catholic’s championship run, it might be that the bar is now set as high as it can go for first-year coach Gabe Fertitta.
The former Catholic offensive coordinator credited long-time head coach Dale Weiner for handing off an already highly successful program when he retired following the 2016 season.
Weiner was the coach for Catholic’s 2015 title, the only of his career.
“You come into a program like this the first year as the head coach at Catholic and achieve this accomplishment, it’s really, to me, a tremendous feather in the cap of coach Weiner and the program he left for me to take over,” Fertitta said. “This didn’t just happen overnight. This is something that’s been worked on long before I was ever head football coach.”