STERLING – The Newman Comets are headed back to a familiar destination in the state finals. The way they got there looked pretty similar to years past, too.
Newman ran for 298 yards and two touchdowns, and held the ball 2½ times as long as the Mercer County Golden Eagles in a dominating 14-0 victory in their Class 2A semifinal Saturday afternoon at Sterling Chevrolet Field at Roscoe Eades Stadium.
"Our game plan went very well," Newman senior J.P. Neisewander said. "Last week, we were trying not to lose instead of playing to win. Our goal this week was to fix that, and everything clicked for us today."
The Comets (12-1) controlled the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, pushing 3 or 4 yards downfield on offense, and spending almost as much time in the Mercer County backfield as the Golden Eagles backs.
Junior Jacob Barnes led the charge, as he disrupted several plays with penetration and created openings for Neisewander and his fellow blitzing linebackers.
"We had to really adjust and read better and flow harder this week," Neisewander said. "Pressure on the quarterback was big for us, and we got a good push and used more blitzes. We had to get hits on him – make him think about us instead of looking downfield."
Mercer County (11-2) had seven drives, and none lasted more than six plays or 3 minutes. The Golden Eagles, who beat Farmington 41-0 in last week's quarterfinals, amassed 116 total yards – with 52 coming on all-stater Chris Neeld's lone run early in the fourth quarter.
"They key for us was to just keep everything contained," Barnes said. "The DBs gave us linemen some time to rush the passer, and our linebackers were filling holes and hitting hard."
"We kept our heads up, but it was a little aggravating," Neeld said. "They're a very, very consistent team, and it was difficult to stop them on offense and move it on their defense. I was very impressed with them."
Newman, on the other hand, held the ball for nearly 35 minutes and ran 71 plays to Mercer County's 28. The Comets had scoring drives of 14 plays and 6:07 in the first half and 16 plays and 7:39 in the second half, then secured the victory with a 15-play, 73-yard march that took the final 7:48 off the clock.
Mercer County had the ball for two drives and all of 3:32 after halftime, and ended those possessions with a fumble and a turnover on downs.
"The line controlled everything, and they're the reason us backs got yards," senior Mac Olson said. "They opened holes and made it easier for us to control the ball and just drive down the field and take all the time off the clock."
"Everything we do is for those backs," Barnes added. "When those guys need to block, they block, and when they need to get those tough yards, they find a way to get them. That's great for us linemen to have, because we know if we do our jobs, they're going to take advantage of it."
Dillan Heffelfinger led Newman with 123 yards and a touchdown on 24 carries, and Olson added 78 yards on 17 rushes. Brady Rude ran 11 times for 47 yards, and Jake Snow added 52 yards on 12 carries.
Snow's 4-yard TD run capped the first-half scoring drive that spanned the first and second quarters. It helped the Comets finally take advantage of good field position with the wind at their backs. In the game's first 15:48, only one play was run on Newman's side of the 50-yard line.
"Getting the lead started the engine for us," Olson said, "and once we got rolling, we just went with it."
Nate Terveer's interception on first down inside the Newman 10 stopped Mercer County's deepest incursion of the game, and the Comets ran out the first half.
Newman opened the second half with the ball, and moved 39 yards to the Golden Eagle 30-yard line before Snow fumbled when a Mercer County defender put his helmet right on the ball.
But Newman's defense returned the favor, as Neisewander leaped on a bad pitch on a Mercer County sweep at the Comet 48 to set up the second scoring drive.
"I was going to hit the quarterback, and he just tossed it, and I saw it get tipped," Barnes said of the key defensive play. "I dove for it, but J.P. covered it, but it was big for us."
The Comets put the finishing touches on the win after stuffing Mercer County's run on fourth-&-2 from the Newman 22, and the offense ran out the clock from there.
The reward for the one-sided win is Newman's seventh trip to the state finals. The Comets, who are 4-2 in those games, will face Staunton (9-4) for the 2A championship at 1 p.m. Friday in DeKalb. Staunton was a 32-28 come-from-behind winner over Auburn.
"Freshman year, us seniors saw Newman win state," Olson said. "Ever since then, we've wanted to do what that class did."
"We did exactly what we needed to do to win this game," Barnes added, "and we've just got to play like that next week and we can win state. We've got it."
Class 2A semifinal
Newman 14, Mercer County 0
Star of the game: Dillan Heffelfinger, Newman, 24 rushes, 123 yards, TD
Key performers: Mac Olson, Newman, 17 rushes, 78 yards; J.P. Neisewander, Newman, 3 solo tackles, fumble recovery; Chris Neeld, Mercer County, 52-yard run, 9 tackles
Up next: Class 2A state championship, Newman vs. Staunton, at Huskie Stadium, DeKalb, 1 p.m. Friday