Late fumble return clinches Marion Center's win over Blairsville
BLAIRSVILLE — It's not at all uncommon to see a game won on a field goal in the last minute in the National Football League. It's just plain rare in the Heritage Conference.
Linebacker Jed Peterson helped to keep it that way Friday at Memorial Stadium. Peterson caught Blairsville quarterback Mike Milliron from behind and stripped the ball, allowing linebacker Nick LaMantia to recover the fumble and return it 35 yards for the game's final score in a 34-26 Marion Center win in the final 2010 game for both teams.
Until Peterson and LaMantia's heroics, Blairsville was potentially headed for that rare finish to a game. Blairsville had already scored 13 points in the quarter and was eyeing a comeback win for the second straight week. Down just 28-26, the Bobcats started a drive from their own 38 with 5:00 remaining and wanted to at least give Justin Jones a shot at a winning field goal or even punch in another touchdown while leaving the Stingers with little time to respond on offense.
Instead, the Stingers responded on defense. Marion Center stopped Andrew Iezzi for a 1-yard loss, then held receiver Nick Halmes to a 7-yard catch. Milliron threw too low for receiver Brian Wolfe on a play that would have secured a first down. On fourth-and-4, Milliron rolled left and looked for open receivers on Blairsville's side of the field, but Peterson came off Blairsville's right edge to chase down Milliron and force the critical fumble.
"I knew I could get to him. He was setting up, taking his time all game, and I just took off after him," said Peterson. "I saw him bring the ball back, and I knew I could jar the ball loose. After I hit him, I knew it was at least a sack, but then I saw Nick running down the sideline, and I got really excited. That's probably my defining moment as a Marion Center football player."
The second half wasn't defining for Blairsville. It was, in fact, rare. Blairsville's failed throughout the season to stop anyone on defense. In one sense, the Bobcats held true to form. Blairsville's defense was most porous in the third quarter this year, giving 93 points and stifling its ability to come back in most games. Marion Center added to that with a 13-play, 69-yard scoring drive that consumed nearly six minutes in third quarter.
But, they were the only points given up by the defense in this second half. Marion Center gained only 84 yards in the half, and for the Blairsville defense in 2010, that was pretty good. Only the six points given up to Saltsburg was statistically better on points allowed.
"I thought they could've thrown in the towel tonight," said Blairsville coach Ab Dettorre. "They went up against a quality running back (Peterson) who burned them a couple times, but in the second half, they wanted to win badly. Probably the biggest thing I think I got out of this was our super effort in the second half. Usually that was our collapse, and tonight we were driven."
Blairsville had the running game to complement the defense. Iezzi rushed for 137 yards on 21 carries. But, Blairsville didn't have the passing game to complement the running game. Milliron passed for 164 yards and one touchdown, but the offense was held back by too many dropped passes, errant throws, three interceptions, one holding penalty and two sacks, including one more by linebacker Nathan Pappal on Blairsville's final gasp possession.
"You had some dropped balls, and when you drop balls, I think that hurts your quarterback's confidence," said Dettorre. "He threw some bad balls (too). I think it's a little bit both ways. That's what we've done all year. We've had some great passing nights, and we've had some not-so-great passing nights."
Marion Center took a 6-0 lead on a 1-yard dive by quarterback Mike Cavazza with 2:53 remaining in the first quarter. Blairsville answered late in the quarter with a 37-yard run by Iezzi. Jones' kick gave Blairsville its only lead of the game, 7-6, but it was very short-lived. Peterson, who rushed for 181 yards and extended his school record to 3,065 yards, ran for a 70-yard touchdown on the next play from scrimmage.
The Stingers converted two fourth downs and a third down on their next possession and finished the 14-play, 59-yard drive with a 4-yard dive by Peterson. The drive was textbook for possession football, consuming 7:18 of the second quarter.
Iezzi took a screen pass 29 yards for a touchdown to cut Marion Center's lead to 21-13, and the Bobcats might have taken the lead back before halftime, but Milliron's 24-yard pass for Iezzi at the goal line was picked off by Cavazza, the third Stingers interception of the half.
After Marion Center scored again and led 28-13 in the third quarter, the Bobcats scored on back-to-back possessions to pull within two points. Blairsville converted two fourth-down attempts, scoring on the second on a 7-yard keeper by Milliron. Nick Halmes recovered the onside kick and Milliron finished off another drive with a 1-yard dive.
For Marion Center, the win gave them a two-game winning streak to end the season. The Stingers' 4-5 record prevents them entering the playoffs by Marion Center Area School District rules.
"This was just a great win," said Marion Center Dave Malicky, who supports the policy that no Marion Center athletic team under .500 will participate in playoffs. "We had two wins to end the year, and not too many teams end on a win, so we'll take it."
For Blairsville, a disappointing season is finally over. It was the Bobcats' worst finish since a 1-7-1 effort in 1978. But, the comeback victory against Purchase Line two Fridays ago, the encouraging defensive performance in the second half against Marion Center and a promising junior class returning all bode well for 2011.
There is still the question of Dettorre's return for a 25th season as Blairsville's head coach. After the season-opening loss to Bishop Ready, Dettorre stated of his players: 'If I cannot make them better football players, I will hand in my papers at the end of the season.'
Eight weeks later, the Bobcats have shown signs that they are better, and that they could be a better team in 2011. But, Dettorre made no commitment one way or another after the Marion Center loss, saying, "I certainly still love the game and I certainly still love my Bobcats. I always think there is potential. I always think there is talent. What it comes down to is how much does the potential and talent want to work. There's a lot to weigh and measure, and I certainly don't want to make any decisions based on emotions. There has to be some discussion with our staff, the direction that we're going to go. Time will tell."