|Late flag, field goal end Bethel football season |
MCKENZIE, Tenn. — The Bethel Wildcats have made two consecutive playoff appearances and in those they have faced The University of Saint Francis Cougars from Fort Wayne, Ind. two consecutive times in the NAIA Football Championship Series Quarterfinals. For the second consecutive time, special teams play was the Wildcats’ downfall and for the second consecutive time, the Cougars scored with less than a minute remaining to win. The final score this season was 30-27 in Saint Francis’ favor.
Gone — Bethel’s Antonio Brown, Sr. (24) breaks free of St. Francis defender Sam Miles (14) for a 17-yard touchdown run in the Wildcats’ heartbreaking playoff loss Saturday. Photo by Jimmy Gilliam
This time it stung more than it did last year. With three seconds to play and the score tied at 27-all, Saint Francis running back Taylor Vieck caught what appeared to be a harmless 6-yard pass from Jeff Wedding at the Wildcat 26 as regulation ended Saturday at McKenzie.
Get the teams ready for overtime right? No, Bethel was flagged for an unintentional facemask. That moved the Cougars to the Wildcat 21 and because the game can not end on a defensive penalty, Saint Francis was able to run an untimed play. What resulted will be hard for any Bethel player, coach or fan to delete from the memory banks.
The Cougars’ Rhys Barnhart, who had attempted and connected on one field goal all season (33 yards) coming into the game, booted a 39-yard field goal for a 30-27 win. It was Barnhart’s third field goal of the game.
The quarterfinal match-up lived up to its billing as the “Game of the Decade.” It had hard hits and big plays. The momentum changed countless times. The Cougars, who came into the game ranked No. 3 in total offense per game (515 yards), took the opening kickoff and drove to the Bethel 15. Facing 3rd-and-8, Bethel linebacker Wade Vandergriff sacked Wedding, forcing St. Francis to kick a 34-yard field goal. Bethel got a great return of 47 yards from Julian Tyler on the ensuing kickoff to the Cougar 38-yard line. Bethel senior quarterback Ronnie Jankovich hit senior wideout Antonio Brown, Sr. for a 16-yard gain. An offside penalty placed the ball at the USF 17. Brown then slipped in to take a direct snap and he sliced through for a 17-yard touchdown run.
The Bethel defense held USF to a three-and-out and the offense went to work from the BC 30. Jankovich found Joevaris Carter on a slant route for a 37-yard pick-up to the St. Francis 33. Bethel worked to the 18 before attempting a field goal that Matt Wininger pushed wide right.
Saint Francis was able to take the lead as the second quarter began when Wedding’s pass was deflected by Bethel’s BJ Banks in the end zone, but it made its way to the hands of Zach Rainey and the Cougars led 10-7.
Bethel went on a 13-play drive that used 7:07 of the clock but the Cats stalled on the USF 21. Bethel attempted a 38-yard field goal that sailed left.
The defense held and the Cat offense was able to retake the lead. Senior running back Adrain Smith finished off a 10-play drive with a three-yard score and Bethel led 14-10.
With 30 seconds remaining in the half, the Cougars changed the momentum again. Wedding’s second pass to Bo Thompson went for 38 yards to the Bethel 4-yard line. With three seconds on the clock, USF decided against kicking a field goal. Wedding faked a handoff and went around the right side for the score. As the half came to an end, the Cougars had grabbed the lead 17-14.
Bethel was unable to do anything with the second half’s opening possession, but USF struck quickly as Daniel Carter got free down the sideline for a 54-yard TD run. With the score, the Cougars had jumped out to a 10-point advantage, 24-14, early in the third. After Bethel was stopped on offense again, USF added to its lead on Barnhart’s second field goal of the game, this one from 35 yards out, for a 27-14 score.
As the final frame began, Bethel got as far as the USF 41 before punting, but the Cats’ defense was up for the challenge forcing the Cougars to punt.
With 8:40 left in the game, Bethel got the spark they needed on a 3rd-and-1 from Smith, who bolted through the line and ran 65 yards to the USF 3-yard line. Terrance Bell darted in on the next play to bring Bethel within six, 27-21.
The Bethel defense bent but didn’t break as the Cougars took it to the Cats 30-yard line. Facing 4th-and-9, Wedding completed a pass to Carter, but he was stopped short by Markee Robinson, Brandon Looney and Cliff Barna.
Bethel’s offense responded as Bell went 30 yards for his second touchdown. However, the PAT was blocked leaving the score 27-27.
With just over a minute to play, the Cougars started from their 25-yard line. Wedding kept the drive alive by scrambling 14 yards on 3rd-and-10 to the USF 37. Wedding then completed two passes to get the Cougars to the Wildcats’ 33. Two holding penalties pushed the Cougars back to their 48. Facing 1st-and-29, Wedding found Rainey for a 20-yard gain to the Bethel 32. After an incompletion, three seconds remained on the clock.
The play of the game that will be talked about for a long time happened. Wedding floated a pass to left halfback Vieck that looked innocent enough, almost as though the USF coaches had resigned themselves to overtime. With no time showing on the clock, a piece of yellow cloth lay on the field. The head referee broke the news that an incidental facemask had been called on the defense. The facemask had not been held on to, it had not been used to aide the tackle and it wasn’t on purpose. It was a glancing touch of the metal on the front of the helmet that put Saint Francis five yards closer and gave the Cougars one last untimed play. Barnhart came out to kick the winning filed goal, but was “iced” by Bethel head coach Dino Kaklis twice with the Wildcats’ remaining two timeouts. As he finally lined up for the kick, the stadium was almost silent. Then, a collective groan of the Bethel faithful and the cheers of the Cougar fans filled the air as the ball crossed the bar by a scant three feet. If the penalty had not been called and put USF five yards closer, the kick would have fallen short. If the referee had not made the decision to let the innocent play go, the teams could have settled the game “on the field” in overtime. That didn’t happen, and USF ended the Wildcats’ season 30-27.
Offensively, Smith led the ground attack with 18 carries for 144 yards and a touchdown; Bell had 12 carries for 89 yards and two touchdowns; Brown, Sr. carried four times for 29 yards and Jankovich ran 11 times for 18 yards. Jankovich was 8-of-15 passing for 129 yards. Brown, Sr. was 2-of-4 for 13 yards. Ricky Currie had three catches for 21 yards; Will Cripps had two grabs for 33 yards; Brown, Sr. had two for 26 yards and Joevaris Carter had one catch for 37 yards.
Defensively, Markee Robinson led the way with 15 tackles; Wade Vandergriff had 10 stops and a sack; senior Cliff Barna had nine stops; Chancy DePriest had eight tackles; Van Alexander had seven tackles and one for loss; Justin Cobb and Dustin Finch each had six stops; Marshall Varnum had five and Brenton Ford had four stops and a tackle for loss.
Bethel’s season ends with the best record (11-2) since football was reinstated in 1993 and its highest national ranking (No. 4).