Americus-Sumter’s Xavier Willis tries to escape the grasp of Worth County’s Hakeem Slade during Friday’s Region 1-AAA opener for both teams. Willis did plenty of escaping Friday night, catching 3 TDs — all in the second half — to finish with 109 yards on 10 receptions during the Panthers’ stunning 36-29 comeback win in Sylvester. (joe.bellacomo@albanyherald.com)

Americus-Sumter’s Xavier Willis tries to escape the grasp of Worth County’s Hakeem Slade during Friday’s Region 1-AAA opener for both teams. Willis did plenty of escaping Friday night, catching 3 TDs — all in the second half — to finish with 109 yards on 10 receptions during the Panthers’ stunning 36-29 comeback win in Sylvester. (joe.bellacomo@albanyherald.com)

SYLVESTER -- His eyes were big. No, huge. No, gigantic.

"My eyes got so big. This big,'' said Kadarius Bryant as he held his hand up and made a huge circle. "They were as big, big like 24-inch tires.''

Then he laughed.

That's the way Bryant described it -- the play, the one that broke Worth County's back and lifted Americus-Sumter to the heavens.

One play, a play that came from nowhere and sent Americus dancing into the locker room and sent Worth spiraling, grasping to snatch back a game that the Rams owned -- a game that had a Worth 'W' written all over it.

But Worth couldn't hold on and Bryce Benton couldn't do anything wrong -- and just like that, the Region 1-AAA race flipped upside down.

And Americus just kept dancing.

By the time it was over, the Panthers had pulled off a comeback for the ages, a 36-29 victory that left Worth stunned and should leave everyone else in the region worrying about how they are going to stop Benton, who completed 29 of 50 passes for 311 yards and three touchdowns. Or how they'll stop the Panthers, who ignored a 22-0 deficit and ripped off a 29-point run, and then finally put it away with one final Benton-esque drive to take home the region opener at Milt Miller Field.

"That play spiked us up,'' said Benton, referring to Bryant's game-changing romp into the end zone.

Worth had owned this one. The Rams ripped off a 22-0 lead in the first quarter, taking advantage of two Americus fumbles, and letting QB Savon Farley take care of everything else. Farley hit Kareem McDonald with a 7-yard TD pass and ran for two touchdowns himself, scoring on a 1-yard run and a 13-yard run. And Farley, who is the holder on extra points, even added a two-point conversion pass on a botched snap as he tossed a pass to James Rockwell.

Worth held Americus twice on downs inside the Rams' 15, and was running the clock out in the first half with the 22-0 cushion.

That's when everything changed. Americus-Sumter coach Michael Pollock used his timeouts, and Worth, which was taking a knee, faced a fourth and 11 from its 14-yard-line with 3.0 seconds left. Farley tried to run out the final three seconds, but the ball popped out, and guess who was there?

Bryant, who snatched the ball and all the momentum in the game and raced into the end zone with both on an 18-yard fumble return as time expired.

"I saw the ball and my eyes got big,'' Bryant said. "I just picked up the ball and ran for my life.''

Nothing was the same after that moment.

"At halftime I could see it in the kids' eyes that they believed they were going to win the football game,'' Pollock said. "I've never seen that before in a game that we were losing 22-0.''

It was there the rest of the night, and so was Benton, who lit up the sky and the scoreboard. He completed 17 of 25 passes, including 11 of his final 13 and five in a row to complete his night. He threw three TD passes, all to Xavier Willis, who caught 10 passes for 109 yards -- including the game-winning 9-yard TD catch with 1:11 left that lifted Americus to its 36-29 final.

Get used to that connection. Both are juniors.

"They call him Michael Vick,'' joked Willis, pointing to Benton." They call me the playmaker.''

Bryant is a junior, too.

That's bad news for the rest of Region 1-AAA. The Panthers (3-2) own a share of first place after this one. Worth (2-3) will regroup.

"Yeah, it (hurts to lose like this),'' said Worth County coach Scottie Ward. "Oh my gosh, that play ... There are three seconds left before halftime. It just took the air out of us.''

And Pollock hit the gas, and kept his foot on it, sending in pass play after pass play.

"I was telling (offensive coordinator) Chris Wade in the second quarter that they can't stop our passing game, '' Pollock said.

They couldn't.

Benton drove the Panthers 74 yards to open the third, completing four of his first five passes before Jarod Lewis scored on a 4-yard run to make it 22-14, then Americus pulled off an onside kick, and Benton went to work right away, hitting two passes for 30 yards to the Worth 17. he found Willis for a 12-yard strike to the 12 yard line, and then came right back to him for a 12-yard TD toss with 4:41 left.

Benton topped off the drive with a two-point conversion pass to Tyran Goober to knot it at 22-22. Suddenly it was tied, and Worth hadn't run a play since the Bryant fumble return. That's right, 22 points that were not only unanswered but uncontested.

Worth ran three plays and fumbled the ball back to Americus, and Benton led a 30-yard drive, hitting 3-of-3 passes for 23 yards, including an 11-yard TD strike to Willis to lift Americas to a 29-22 lead.

Worth stormed back and knotted things again when Farley, facing a fourth-and-15 at the Americus 19, threw a perfect pass to Kevota McCluster, who split two Americus defensive backs for the TD with 4:26 left.

But that gave Benton a final chance, and he used it, driving 80 yards and finding Willis with the 9-yard game winner with 1:11 left.

Worth made one last surge, driving to the Americus 30, but on the final play of the game, Jonathan Thomas made a leaping interception in the end zone to end it.

"I was confident in the second half,'' said Benton, who threw for 184 yards in the final two quarters. "We were all confident. We believe in each other. We're family.''

And closer than ever after this one.