McNary running back Zane Aicher escapes from a Sprague defender to pick up the first down. Aicher finished the game with 146 rushing yards on 25 carries (KEIZERTIMES/Matt Rawlings).
For three-and-half quarters, the McNary defense played lights out against Sprague. But a costly mistake in the final seconds put the Celtics in the loss column.
Sprague quarterback Logan Smith found Blaise Pearson for a 66-yard score with 11 seconds remaining to give the Olympians the 21-17 win over McNary on Friday, Oct. 1.
“That one hurt. They made more plays when it counted than we did. That is what it boiled down to,” McNary head coach Jeff Auvinen said. “We need to learn from it and use it to motivate us.”
With the loss, McNary moves to 4-1 overall and 1-1 in Mountain Valley Conference (MVC) play.
After the Olys defense got a stop on McNary's opening drive, Sprague junior Drew Rodriguez took the ensuing punt and zigzagged 77 yards for the score just over a minute into the game, giving the Olys the early 7-0 advantage.
However, for the next 40 minutes, the Celtics defense completely stifled Sprague's offensive attack.
“The defense played great for three quarters. If you take away those big plays, it was a pretty dominant defensive effort,” Auvinen said.
The McNary defensive line continued to get pressure on Smith by rushing just three to four guys per play, and senior defensive back Gunner Smedema completely took Rodriguez, who is one of the best receivers in the state, out of the passing game — Smedema had two interceptions on the night and held Rodriguez to one catch for eight yards.
“I knew I would be covering a bigger and faster receiver. But I was just all over him trying to make sure that he didn't get the ball,” Smedema said.
“Gunner was in charge of (Rodriguez) for most of the night and really did a nice job on him,” Auvinen added.
Smedema also played a big role in McNary's offensive attack, catching a 20-yard touchdown from McNary quarterback Tyler Copeland late in the first quarter to tie the game at 7-7.
The Celtics had several chances to extend their lead in the first half, but had multiple drives stall in the red zone. McNary kicker Logan Ready, who was dealing with a turf-toe injury, also missed a pair of field goals in the second quarter, keeping the game tied at 7-7 at halftime — the Celtics also botched a field goal attempt on the last play of the first half due to a muffed snap.
“We left a lot of points on the table,” Auvinen said.
Late in the second quarter, Copeland went down after a sack and had to be helped off the field after suffering a high-ankle sprain. Despite being unable to move without a noticeable limp, Copeland went back into the game to start the third quarter.
“We had to change up everything, our entire game plan. I couldn't move,” Copeland said.
Copeland's lack of mobility greatly impacted the McNary offense, as the quarterback's usual ability to create out of the pocket using his athleticism was now gone. Copeland went just 8-of-28 through the air for 137 yards.
“It sure made a difference with his mobility and it limited our play selection,” Auvinen said.
While Copeland was able to play through the pain at quarterback, the senior was unable to patrol his usual safety spot on defense, which came back to bite the Celtics in the final quarter.
After four failed field goal attempts in the first three quarters, McNary was finally able to convert when Logan Ready knocked one in from 25 yards out with 8:33 remaining in the game to give the Celtics a 10-7 lead. But Sprague would respond later in the period when Smith found Pearson on a shallow out route, and the senior receiver broke a pair of tackles and rumbled 63 yards before being brought down inside the McNary 20-yard line.
Two plays later, Smith scrambled for a six-yard touchdown to give the Olympians the 14-10 lead with 2:46 on the clock.
The McNary offense had struggled mightily to move the ball for the entire second half. But with the game on the line, the Celtics put together their most impressive drive of the season, led by two of their senior leaders, Copeland and Smedema.
Copeland found Jesse Dyer on a slant for a first down on the opening play of the drive, then hit Smedema on a fade route for a 30-yard gain into Sprague territory.
“Tyler was gutting it out. He did a great job. I know that foot was hurting and he was struggling, but he competed and was there for his teammates. I can't commend that kid enough,” Auvinen said.
After a pair of incompletions, Copeland connected with Smedema on third-and-10. Smedema caught the ball short of the line to gain over the middle, but broke multiple tackles and fought his way for 15 yards and the first down.
“Gunner single-handedly kept us in that game,” Copeland said.
The following play, Copeland found Smedema once again, this time for the go-ahead score.
Sprague brought the blitz against the hobbled quarterback, but Copeland was able to hop away from a defender to buy time. With two guys in his face, Copeland completed a jump pass to Smedema, who broke off his slant route, came back to the outside to make the catch and scampered to the end zone for the 20-yard score, giving McNary the 17-14 advantage
“There were two guys in my face when I saw Gunner. I just had to jump and throw,” Copeland said.
“I had a slant route, but I saw Tyler was getting a lot of pressure, so I got my defender to bait hard inside and came back out. I saw he was about to go down, so I started throwing my hands up and he saw me and we just connected,” Smedema added.
With the lead and all the momentum with just over a minute remaining, the McNary student section began preparing for a celebration. As it turned out, their jubilation was a bit premature.
With 22 seconds remaining, Smith was able to escape from pressure and run to his right. Before going out-of-bounds, the senior signal-caller launched a ball downfield to Pearson, who had somehow gotten behind both McNary safeties to haul in the pass and run to the end zone for the 66-yard touchdown.
Looks of shock and horror came across the faces of the McNary sideline as the Celtics now found themselves behind with 11 seconds left.
“It shouldn't have happened, but it did. We had good pressure on (Smith) but he did a nice job of keeping his eyes downfield and buying some time,” Auvinen said. “I think they stopped for a split second thinking the play was over, and it definitely wasn't over. We didn't play through the whistle on that play and it cost us for sure.”
“Everyone was locked down until the quarterback started scrambling. One guy just leaked away and got wide open. It was just a miscommunication on defense,” Smedema added.
The Celtics got off two desperation plays in the waning moments. Neither one was successful.
“It's one of those games I won't forget. We battled through a lot of injuries. I thought we had them on the last drive. But there's nothing we can do now. We messed up and we got to move on,” Copeland said. “We just have to flush it.”
McNary travels to South Salem to take on the Saxons at 7 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 8.
Matt Rawlings: [email protected]