McNary linebacker Ben Allen had a crucial 34-yard pick-six in the Celtics 21-13 win over South Salem (KEIZERTIMES/Matt Rawlings).

After suffering a devastating loss to Sprague last week, the shorthanded McNary football squad responded in a major way.

Despite being without their starting quarterback, and one of the best players in the Mountain Valley Conference (MVC) in Tyler Copeland, McNary (5-1, 2-1, MVC) used a physical rushing attack and stifling defense to defeat South Salem 21-13 on Friday, Oct. 8.

“It was huge. It was a gritty win. I very much respect gritty and tough-minded individuals. To come back from the loss last week where we lost our quarterback that was playing really well, the bounce back was huge,” McNary head coach Jeff Auvinen said. “There was a little bit of a limited playbook this week, but they gritted it out.”

McNary senior running back Zane Aicher led the Celtics offense with 17 carries for 102 yards and a touchdown

“It means a lot,” Aicher said about the win. “We're more than just one guy. We are a team. There's not just one guy we depend on, and we proved it.”

Due to Copeland's ankle injury he suffered in the previous game, Gunner Smedema, the Celtics leading receiver, took reps as McNary's signal-caller all week at practice and was named the starting quarterback.

“It was pretty stressful. My arm still isn't really there, but we practiced running a new offense and I felt more confident throughout the week,” Smedema said.

McNary's new offense featured a two-back set and several new wrinkles in the ground game, including multiple designed runs for Smedema, who only threw for 25 yards, but rushed for 71 yards on 15 carries.

“We went to a little more protection. You saw two backs almost exclusively. The lead backs did a great job blocking. They probably got us an extra 100 yards off their lead blocks,” Auvinen said.

South Salem appeared unprepared for McNary's new offensive approach on the opening possession as Smedema ran for a pair of first downs to put the Celtics in business. McNary took six minutes off the clock on the drive before Braiden Copeland muscled his way into the end zone from three yards out to give McNary the 8-0 advantage. 

“We just ran it down their throat,” Smedema said.

South Salem came into the game as one of the top offenses in the state. But early on, the Saxons were unable to handle the physicality and athleticism of the McNary defense.

“The defense was very good all day long,” Auvinen said. “They fought their butt off. It was a great job by the kids.”

One of the keys for the McNary defense was slowing down Saxons receiver Tini Tinitali — who, coming into the game, had over 100 receiving yards three times in South Salem's first five contests.

Tinitali still had 70 yards receiving on the night, but the McNary secondary made it a point-of-emphasis to not let the senior wideout beat them deep.

Aicher credited his brother, Kyle, who is the McNary defensive backs coach, with coming up with a successful game plan to slow down the Saxons aerial attack.

“If (Tinitali) ever lined up on the ball, we knew he was going deep,” Aicher said. “My brother puts a lot of time in. Sometimes, I will look over to the sideline and he will give me a hand motion telling me what the route is going to be.”

McNary also held Saxons quarterback Daschel Smith to just 172 yards passing on the night — it was only the second time this season Smith didn't break the 200-yard barrier.

“We had a really good scouting report. We knew everything that they were doing most of the time,” Smedema said.

After 24 minutes of action, South Salem had more turnovers (3) than first downs (2). But McNary wasn't able to capitalize on any of the Saxons turnovers as the Celtics lead remained 8-0 at halftime.

Both teams traded multiple punts to start the second half, but late in the third quarter, the Saxons finally broke through for a score as Smith took it in on a quarterback draw from 11 yards out. However, Aicher broke up a pass on the two-point attempt, allowing McNary to cling to an 8-6 lead.

The Celtics offense looked to be back on track to start the fourth quarter, but their drive stalled in the red zone as Smedema's pass across the middle sailed over Logan Ready's head on fourth-and-seven, giving the ball back to the Saxons.

However, on the following snap, sophomore linebacker Ben Allen made the play of the day for the Celtics.

On first down from the South Salem 17-yard line, Smith faded back to pass and threw a ball over the middle, intended for Tinitali. What Smith didn't see was that Allen had faked a blitz, dropped back in coverage and was in the perfect spot for the interception.

After getting the pick, Allen broke a tackle and sprinted for a 34-yard touchdown, giving McNary a 14-6 lead, plus all the momentum.

“I saw the receiver turn to the middle, and I backed up a little bit in coverage, and it went right in my hands,” Allen said. “It was an amazing feeling. I was so excited.”

“The kids really executed their coverages. We did mix up the coverages quite a bit. We went some zone, we went some man, we had help over the top frequently. We tried to mix it up and disguise coverages, which coaxed them into some throws that weren't really there,” Auvinen added.

After both teams went three-and-out on their following possessions, Tinitali was nearly able to tie the game with a 50-yard punt return to the McNary 10-yard line. But the return was negated due to a holding penalty.

Three plays later, Smith was looking to connect on a deep ball to try and tie the game. The pass was nowhere near the intended target and fell into the hands of Aicher for the Saxons fifth turnover of the evening. 

“The turnovers were huge. We will take that all day. If you win the turnover battle, your odds are pretty good,” Auvinen said.

With McNary attempting to run the clock out with less than four minutes remaining, South Salem called timeouts on three consecutive plays to try and leave themselves some time to get the ball back and tie the game.

Facing a fourth-and-four from the Saxons 34-yard line, the Celtics knew they could put this one away if they came up with a big play.

McNary offensive coordinator Connor Astley called Aicher's number in the crucial situation, and the senior running back delivered, scampering 34 yards for the score on a stretch play to the right side, extending the lead to 21-6.

“I knew as soon as I got around the corner, I was going to score,” Aicher said.

South Salem scored with 46 seconds left to make it a one possession game, but their ensuing onside kick was recovered by McNary.

McNary will host their homecoming contest on Friday, Oct. 15 against West Salem at 7 p.m. — a game that could decide who wins the MVC title. It is unknown if Copeland will be available for the game, but Auvinen made it clear that he wants his senior signal-caller to be healthy before sending back out onto the field.

“Tyler is dying to get back in there, but we aren't going to rush him. Once he's back, we want him to carry us through the rest of the regular season and into the playoffs,” Auvinen said.

Auvinen also said that he believes in his team regardless of who is playing quarterback.

“All of our goals are still out in front of us. Every week is a one week season,” he said.

Matt Rawlings: [email protected]