MOMENCE – After Newman's offense spent most of the game on the field, it was the Comets' defense that finally came up with the big play to secure a victory Saturday.
Momence scored two touchdowns in the final 2 minutes, but came up 2 yards short on a two-point conversion that would have won a Class 2A quarterfinal.
After recovering one last onside kick, the Comets (11-1) ran out the clock and celebrated a 34-33 win on the road that earns them a semifinal game at home for the second straight season.
"It was pretty scary there at the end," sophomore Brady Rude said, "but we held on and we're moving on, so that's all that matters."
Newman dictated the game for the majority of the first 44˝ minutes, dominating the time of possession and the line of scrimmage. The Comets held the ball for 32:37 compared to Momence's 15:23, and rushed 65 times for 310 yards and five touchdowns. Dillan Heffelfinger (21 rushes, 119 yards) and Jake Snow (17-96) scored twice each, and Rude (9-41) added another TD.
But the final 3:30 belonged to Momence (8-4). The Redskins forced Newman's second punt of the game with 3:39 to go, and took over at their own 20-yard line after the wind carried Brandon Ahlgrim's kick into the end zone for a touchback.
Trailing 34-20, Momence completely abandoned the run, instead putting the game on the shoulders – and right arm – of 6-foot-5 junior quarterback Aaron Cantwell. Other than a 2-yard quarterback sneak that netted a first down on the penultimate drive, Cantwell threw on each of the other 12 plays, completing seven of them for 110 yards and two TDs.
The Redskins covered the 80 yards in eight plays and 1:47, with the final 30 coming on Cantwell's scoring strike to Tre Spears with 1:43 to play.
"My receivers were awesome all game," said Cantwell, who finished 15-for-29 passing for 267 yards and all five Momence touchdowns. "They got open almost every play, and I had some really easy throws."
After kicking the extra point to cut the deficit to seven points, Jon Salazar then booted a beautiful onside kick that took a nasty bounce at just the right time, and Gino Wendes ended up cradling the ball at the bottom of the pile at the Newman 42-yard line with 1:42 remaining.
The Redskins again cashed in quickly, covering the 42 yards in five plays – with the help of a defensive holding penalty on Newman on a third-and-8 – and Cantwell again hit Spears for a TD, this time from 15 yards out, to bring Momence to within one.
The Redskins then burned their final timeout to make the most crucial decision of the game.
"As a coaching staff, after the second-to-last score, we talked and said we'd better figure out our best two-point play," coach Matt Fox said, "because we hoped we'd need it."
With the game on the line, Cantwell sprinted out to his right and connected with Jesse Fulwiley at the 2-yard line. But Newman's defenders swarmed the play, and Rude and Michael Ely ended up smacking Fulwiley to the ground short of the goal line to preserve the win.
"That was great team defense," Ely said. "Brady did a great job of stringing out the play so I was able to come up and help him. Together, we were able to make the tackle."
"I made the wrong read; I should have waited and looked into the end zone for an open receiver," said Cantwell, who was being pursued heavily from behind by Jacob Barnes and Nate Terveer on the rollout. "We should've won that game, if I make a better decision at the end. Instead, we just came up a couple of yards short."
Still trailing by one with 43.4 seconds left, and out of timeouts, the Redskins tried their third onside kick of the game. But like the first one late in the third quarter, the Comets were all over this one.
On the kick that Momence recovered, Snow and Nolan McGinn both assumed their deep return positions. On the last one, Snow moved up and left McGinn at the back end by himself. But as the play unfolded, McGinn sprinted upfield toward the play, and ended up snaring the ball before it took another crazy hop.
Two victory formation plays later, the Comets were looking relieved as much as anything as they walked off the field winners.
"I knew I had to get up there and get on it," McGinn said of the final kickoff. "It all came down to that play, and we definitely didn't want to give them another chance. If we got it, we ended the game, and that's all I was thinking about as I ran toward it.
"It was very nerve-racking, but we kept our heads up and came up with the huge plays when we needed them most."
After the dust had settled and the Redskins had shared tears and hugs, Fox defended the decision to go for two, though nobody was vehemently opposed to it; Cantwell said the whole team was lobbying for it, anyway.
"We had the momentum, and we felt it was our best opportunity to win the game," he explained. "Overtime gives you the ball at the 10-yard line, where the field is condensed, and our offense isn't really equipped for that … at least, not against their defense. Newman's offense is built for that, and we'd had trouble stopping them. If I had to do it over again, I'd do the exact same thing; credit them for making a great defensive play."
The Comets racked up 27 first downs to Momence's 14, and limited the Redskins to 67 yards rushing, though they did basically abandoned the ground game after Newman's 16-play, 90-yard scoring drive to open the third quarter took 8:25 off the clock and gave the Comets a 28-13 lead.
The Comets also scored on their next possession of the second half, despite a pair of penalties to open the fourth quarter putting them in second-and-33 from the Momence 44. A.J. Sharp dropped back and found Heffelfinger up the seam for 32 yards. After Heffelfinger converted the third-and-one with a 5-yard run, he covered the final 7 yards in two carries to provide what turned out to be the game-winning touchdown with 9:46 left.
Up next for Newman is a 2A semifinal game against Mercer County next Saturday at Roscoe Eades Stadium … which is the site of the Comets' 41-7 loss to Aurora Christian in last year's 3A semis.
"We struggled a little bit defensively, but we're glad we could get out of here still alive," Heffelfinger said. "Next week is it, next week is the game to go to state, next week is where we ended last year … and next week is for the class of 2013. We don't want it to end one game short again."
Class 2A quarterfinal
Newman 34, Momence 33
Star of the game: Aaron Cantwell, Momence, 15-for-29 passing, 267 yards, 5 TDs, 1 INT
Key performers: Dillan Heffelfinger, Newman 119 rush yards, 2 TDs, 32-yard catch; Jake Snow, Newman, 96 rushing yards, 2 TDs; Brady Rude, Newman, 41 rushing yards, TD, teamhigh 6 tackles; Zack Hamann, Momence, 7 catches, 128 yards, 2 TDs; Tre Spears, Momence, 4 catches, 61 yards, 2 TDs
Up next: Class 2A semifinal, Mercer County at Newman, TBA