DOVER — It may have been the longest time ever taken to decide a fourth-down measurement.
The head referee looked at the ball from just about every conceivable angle, and then studied it some more.
But when he finally raised his right hand and signaled first down for Dover High, the official may have determined the biggest play in Friday night’s game.
The call meant that the Senators had stopped Sussex Central with 7:41 left in the game.
And the stop was what Dover needed to finally take control and pull away to a 41-25 victory over the Golden Knights in a Class 3A District II showdown and send its big homecoming crowd home happy.
The Senators (3-0 Dist. II, 5-2 overall) were leading only 28-25 when Dover defensive back Jamir Richardson came up and tackled the Knights’ Andrew Long as he tried to go outside on a fourth-and-one at the Central 42. Apparently Richardson made the tackle by the narrowest of margins short of the first-down marker.
“I was nervous,” said Richardson. “Are they going to say it’s their ball (on a first down)? I was so hyped.
“It was worse than the NFL,” he joked abut the length of time it took. “I was thinking, they better not say it’s their ball. This is for the school.”
“I said on the sidelines, whoever gets the first stop is probably going to win the game,” said Dover coach Chip Knapp. “We made a real big play there. I didn’t think he got it but it was very close — the closest I’ve seen.
“When you look at a game, there’s a couple key plays — and that was one of them for sure.”
Defending Division I state champion Central (0-2, 3-3) had won seven of the last eight meetings between the two Henlopen North programs.
For most of the second half, it looked like whoever had the ball last might win.
After the fourth-down stop, freshman John Parker scored on a 13-yard pass from Jordan Moran before Jakwon Kilby (23 carries-158 yards) scored on a 20-yard run to seal the victory with 3:17 remaining. For both players, it was their second touchdown of the game.
The Senators also got 93 yards and an 18-yard touchdown run from junior Tyron Abrams.
“For us, losing to them my freshman year in the state semifinals, it left a terrible taste in our mouth,” said Moran. “So any time we can get a win over them, it makes it feel 10 times better."
The Knights have now surrendered 125 points in their three losses but just 13 points in their three victories.
Central got a break to start the second half after trailing 14-12 at halftime.
Dover completed a 15-yard pass to its 45. But just before the receiver went out of bounds, Central safety Joey Finney stole the ball from him.
The Knights converted the turnover into a four-yard scoring run by Kristopher Shields that gave them an 18-14 advantage.
That started a stretch of back-and-forth scoring. The Senators took the lead 28-25 when Parker caught a short pass from Moran, stepped out of a tackle and scored on a 15-yard play.
"As you can see, whenever he gets the ball in his hands, it's hard to take him down," Moran said about Parker. "He's a great player now but he's going to even better in the years to come."
Leading 7-6, Dover got a break when a roughing the punter penalty — on a fourth-and-14 — kept a second-quarter drive alive.
Kilby carried the ball on five of the next plays, covering 42 yards, including the final three for the touchdown.
The TD, with 2:53 left in the half, pushed the Senators’ lead to 14-6.
That was enough time for the Knights to answer again, however.
Central drove 80 yards, most of it coming on a pair of long passes from QB Zimir Gardner (8-for-16, 123 yards). Long made a nice diving catch on a 33-yard completion before John Abbott was left all alone for a 30-yard scoring pass on the next play.
The Knights went for two this time. An offsides penalty pushed the ball back to the eight before a Gardner pass fell incomplete to leave Dover with a 14-12 lead.
Unlike in last week’s loss at Appoquinimink, when Dover fell behind by 27 points to start the game, the Senators scored first on Friday.
After forcing a Central punt to start the contest, the Senators marched 72 yards in nine plays. Moran’s touchdown on a one-yard sneak gave Dover an early 7-0 advantage.
But the Knights answered right back with a six-play, 75-yard drive of its own. Long’s 36-yard run on a reverse set up P.J. Henry’s one-yard TD run.
The snap on the PAT, though, was high and the kick ended up being blocked to leave the Senators with a 7-6 advantage.
The Senators return to action Friday with a 7 p.m. game at Smyrna.
Starting with Friday’s contest, Dover’s final four regular-season opponents — Central, Smyrna, William Penn and Salesianum — were a combined 14-7 going into this weekend. All four opponents are in Class 3A.
Knapp remembers talking to Central coach John Wells before the season started. With every team in Class 3A making the state tournament, both men agreed that all you can do was try to have your team playings its best by the end of the fall.
"That's what we're trying to do," said Knapp. "It does get tougher as we go through so we'll see if we're getting better here in the next couple weeks."
Follow Andy Walter on Twitter at DSNSports.