Balance on offense, toughness on defense, an uncanny ability to exploit an opponent's mistakes - that was what drove the Fayetteville-Manlius football team to the Class AA-2 division regular season championship. And it may take them to higher places yet.
First, there was the league title to attain - and with first place on the line Friday night at Corcoran, the Hornets grabbed it, saving its best work for the fourth quarter of a 21-13 victory over the Cougars.
"It was a great night for us," head coach Paul Muench said. "This is a big victory, and it gives us momentum for the rest of the season."
The state Class AA no. 22-ranked Hornets are now 6-0, its best start since 1998, when it won a Section III title in the Class A ranks.
Two-way star Matt Moro, who scored a pair of touchdowns and had the game-clinching interception in the final minute, said the Hornets' intense work in the off-season has translated into on-field success this fall.
What F-M needed to show, in the early stages of this highly-anticipated clash of two 5-0 teams atop the AA-2 division, was some resilience.
Corcoran took the opening kickoff and went 79 yards, mostly through Chao Porch's runs. On fourth down from the Hornets' 36, quarterback Shakem Buckmon broke through the line, then took off down the right side until he found the end zone.
Trailing 7-0 after the extra point, the Hornets had to make a fourth-down stop at its own 28 in the last minute of the first quarter just to keep the Cougars from moving further ahead. It would not be so lopsided again.
A key third-down pass from John Wittig to Ari Waffle launched a 72-yard march. Early in the second period, Moro went the final six yards for the TD, and Waffle's PAT tied it, 7-7.
Wittig went back to the air on the Hornets' next possession. Most of the 73 yards were covered by two pass plays to Louis Muraco - a 34-yard catch-and-run, then a 24-yard rollout pass where Muraco found the end zone, putting F-M in front for good.
It was still 14-7 when, in the third quarter, Corcoran drove 75 yards, most of it on the ground, before Delvon Adams went the final eight yards for the TD. Instead of tying it, the Cougars went for two points - and Porch got stuffed behind the line of scrimmage, the first of many big plays F-M's defense would pull off.
F-M punted early in the final period, clinging to that 14-13 edge - but Corcoran's Hezekiah Thomas muffed the kick at his own 27, and the Hornets' Billy Patrick pounced on it. A short drive followed, and Moro went the final four yards to score with 9:26 to play.
Now the defense really took over. Moro said his team adjusted well, taking away Corcoran's outside running game in the late stages and forcing the Cougars between the tackles, where the Hornets' strength lay.
Right after Moro's second TD, Brent Strickland made two memorable plays, first dropping Buckmon for a loss, then slamming him to the turf on a third-down blitz, sending Buckmon to the sidelines, not to return.
"We think he (Brent) is one of the best players in the area," Muench said. "And once he makes big plays, it gest the rest of the team fired up. It's fun to watch."
F-M's defense wasn't done, either, as it would force two more turnovers down the stretch. Porch fumbled near midfield with 4:40 left, Scott Barger making the recovery. And with Anthony Heard replacing Buckmon under center, Moro claimed a tipped pass for a game-clinching interception with under a minute to play.
One more week of regular-season play remains for the Hornets, who host Liverpool next Friday at 7 p.m.
There's a good chance F-M could meet the Warriors again in the first round of the Class AA playoffs, which would mean back-to-back games against the same foe. Liverpool, after an 0-3 start, has won three straight to clinch a playoff berth and are coming off a 35-21 win over Nottingham.