It’s hard to find a more succinct way to summarize Ell-Saline’s 27-20, 2OT heartbreaking loss to the Plainville Cardinals on Friday evening in the Sectional Championship game in Brookville. While the loss ended a stellar bounce-back season for an Ell-Saline Cardinal team that had gone a combined 6-12 over the past two seasons, Ell-Saline certainly lived up to it’s moniker, as the Cardiac Cards treated fans to an epic thriller.
Coming off sluggish starts in its previous four games, Ell-Saline (8-2) began the night playing inspired football. After forcing a three and out on the opening Plainville (8-3) possession, Cardinal junior place kicker Eric Rincon drilled a 44-yard field goal with 7:38 remaining in the first quarter to give the Cards an early 3-0 advantage.
Ell-Saline would strike again in the first quarter, and in a major way. With both Plainville defensive ends blitzing into the Cardinal backfield, junior quarterback Nick Davenport use a nifty side-step to avoid the initial defender, then while rolling to his right, fired a deep pass downfield to sophomore receiver Sawyer Kramer, who jostled for position to make the grab against man coverage, then broke free for a 72-yard touchdown reception. Following the Rincon extra point, the Cards led 10-0 with 3:24 remaining in the first quarter.
While the first quarter was all Ell-Saline, Plainville turned momentum in its favor early on in the second.quarter, leading to a 20-point outburst.
Facing a 3rd and 14 just shy of midfield, Plainville’s sophomore quarterback Jordan Finnesy was dropped for a one-yard loss. However, Ell-Saline was ticketed for its first penalty of the night – a personal foul facemask call, so rather than forcing a Plainville punt, the penalty gave the visiting Cardinals 15 yards and fresh set of downs.
A few plays later, Finnesy capped off a 14-play scoring drive with a 15-yard touchdown run at the 9:47 mark to put Plainville on the board at 10-7. After a three-and–out on its next possession deep inside its own territory, Ell-Saline elected to punt. Kramer saw the snap sail over his head and toward the Plainville end zone. Kramer managed to land on the football to prevent a fumble, but the errant snap gave Plainville possession at the Ell-Saline 9-yard line.
Two plays later, bruising 210-pound sophomore tailback Jared Casey plunged across the plane from a yard out, giving Plainville its first lead at 14-10 with 8:02 remaining in the first half.
Neither Casey nor the Cardinals from Plainville were finished yet. With 2:05 to go before halftime, Casey found paydirt again, this time from seven yards out to make the score 20-10. Junior place kicker Tanner Copeland nailed the extra point, but the play was blown dead on an Ell-Saline off sides penalty. On the retry, Copeland pulled the PAT wide left, leaving the score at 20-10.
On the ensuing possession, Ell-Saline looked to regain some ground before the halftime gun sounded. The Cards drove quickly into Plainville territory before Davenport uncorked a beautiful deep ball down the near sideline to senior receiver Zaide Korb, who caught the ball in stride in the end zone while clearly appearing to beautifully toe the sideline while making a fantastic over-the-shoulder grab for the touchdown.
However, Korb was ruled to have made the catch out of bounds, turning what would have been a major swing in momentum into nothing more than an incomplete pass.
Following the “incomplete” pass, Rincon would have his 50-yard field goal attempt blocked, keeping the score deadlocked at 20-10 Plainville at the half.
The excitement began to mount for both fan bases in the second half, as what had been a turnover-free first half of football became anything but.
On Plainville’s first possession of the second half, Ell-Saline forced a fumble to regain possession in Plainville territory at the 9:22 mark. The Cards failed to take advantage of the excellent field possession, coughing up a fumble of their own that Plainville recovered less than two minutes later with 7:36 to play in the third quarter.
Ell-Saline would tally the only points of the period on a one-yard touchdown run as Davenport took it veer left off the left tackle to pull the Cards back within three at 20-17.
With Plainville driving near midfield as the third quarter drew to a close, Ell-Saline had its back against the wall. The Cardinals would respond in true Cardiac Card fashion as the fourth quarter began when sophomore linebacker Owen Bradley picked off a Finnesy pass on the far sideline and returned it into Plainville territory with 11:47 left in regulation.
After working the ball deep into Plainville territory, the visiting Cards would eventually hold the line, forcing Ell-Saline to settle for a 31-yard Rincon field goal to tie the game at 20-20 with 9:50 remaining.
Ell-Saline would get one final crack at pulling off the victory in regulation. After driving deep into Plainville territory, the Cardinal drive stalled in the red zone, and Rincon trotted out to attempt a 33-yard field goal to put the Cards up by three with just 2:35 left in the fourth. Rincon had his kick blocked.
On Plainville’s next possession, the Ell-Saline defense held tough, stalling out the visiting Cardinals drive just a few yards shy of midfield. Plainville head coach Grant Stephenson attempted to pull the night’s biggest trick out of the bag. On 4th and long with less than one minute remaining in the fourth, rather than punting to pin Ell-Saline deep and almost certainly force overtime, Stephenson doubled down and let it ride, dialing up a fake punt. The Ell-Saline defense snuffed out the sweep and made the stop.
Suddenly and shockingly, the Cards had received one final gift-wrapped opportunity to win the game in regulation. But on the very next play, Davenport threw his only interception of the night, a jaw-dropping, full extension grab by Plainville’s Casey working out of the linebacker slot, and thus ending the Ell-Saline threat, forcing overtime.
That’s when things really started to get weird.
After Plainville won the coin toss, Ell-Saline received the ball first. After no gain on the first overtime snap, the Cards faced second and goal from the Plainville 10-yard line. The visiting Cards brought an all-out pass blitz, forcing Davenport to quickly backpedal out of the pocket, scrambling to avoid the onslaught of Plainville pass rushers.
Senior offensive guard Avery Bradley laid out an earth-shaking block to buy Davenport more time, but without a receiver able to get open downfield, continued to work to escape the relentless rush, moving further and further away from the end zone in the process.
Then, Bradley laid out his second massive block on the play, leveling another Plainville pass rusher to allow Davenport just enough time to throw the ball away. While it appeared to clearly be a legal hit from Bradley as he blocked for Davenport, Bradley was inexplicably called for a 15-yard unnecessary roughness penalty from the spot of the foul, cosing the Cards 31 yards and forcing Ell-Saline into a 2nd and goal from the Plainville 41-yard line.
Two plays later, rather than elect to go for a 46-yard field goal attempt, the Cards instead tried to get six on 4th and goal from the 29-yard line. Davenport was sacked. Plainville would have their chance, needing only a field goal to on a drive that would begin at the Ell-Saline ten. Three rushes and nine yards later, the visiting Cards found themselves with a huge decision to make on 4th and goal from the 1-yard line: Try a chip shot, 18-yard field goal, or try to win the battle of the braun up front and sneak it into the end zone for the win.
Plainville elected to send out Copeland to attempt the 18-yard field goal that would send Plainville into the 2A-1A semifinals. Putting this into perspective, that’s two yards closer than your average, run-of-the-mill PAT attempt. Right on cue, Copeland, kicking from the left hash, missed the chip shot, pushing it wide right, and pushing the battle of the birds into double overtime.
In the second overtime, Plainville would get the ball first, scoring the go ahead touchdown on their first play, a 10-yard run from the quarterback Finnesy to put Plainville up 27-20. Ell-Saline would get one final shot.
Beginning from the Plainville 10-yard line, the Cards could muster just three yards on the first three plays, leaving Ell-Saline with a 4th and Goal from the 7-yard line. Davenport’s pass into the back on the end zone fell incomplete, but heavy contact drew a defensive pass interference call. So, Ell-Saline would get half the distance to the goal line and an automatic first down from just outside the 3-yard line, right?
While defensive pass interference results in an automatic first down in professional and collegiate football, it turns out that’s not the case in high school football, at least not since 2013 when the National Federation of State High School Associations voted to remove the automatic first down from defensive pass interference penalties.
If you’re just learning this, don’t feel bad. The scoreboard operator had posted first down on the scoreboard. The PA announcer announced the penalty, following that up by announcing it was 1st and goal from inside the four yard line. Yours truly announced during the Ell-Saline radio broadcast that the penalty would give the Cards and automatic first down and goal from just inside the 4-yard line.
When Ell-Saline broke huddle to come to the line, they faced the scoreboard that said 1st and 4. They heard the PA announcer claim 1st and Goal from the 4-yard line. They’ve seen it hundreds, if not thousands of times, be called an automatic first down during any college or professional football game out there.
The next play certainly had the look of one that would be ran on 1st and goal rather than 4th and goal, as the Cards ran it off tackle to the right for a short gain, looking as if they were expecting the 2nd and goal play to be delivered momentarily from the Ell-Saline sideline. Instead, the Ell-Saline crowd sat in stunned silence as the game – and Ell-Saline’s stellar season – came to a painfully abrupt end.
While Plainville celebrated it’s Sectional Championship and birth into the Sub-State Championship to square off with Smith Center – the state’s top-ranked 2A-1A squad and a 62-7 winner Friday night at Elkhart – Ell–Saline fans were left to ponder what might have been.
If only the officials would have paused the game briefly after seeing the wrong down and distance on the scoreboard and hearing it over the PA system.
If only a legal block wouldn’t have been ruled an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. costing Ell-Saline 31 yards of field position in the overtime.
If only a touchdown catch where the Ell-Saline receiver clearly got at least one, if not both feet down in bounds wouldn’t have been ruled an incomplete pass catch made out of bounds costing the Cards at least six, and most likely seven points in regulation in a game that ended up tied after four quarters of play.
If only Ell-Saline would’ve been heading to the Sub-State Championship game next Friday with a shot to redeem it’s only loss of the season in a tangle with Smith Center, the state’s top-ranked 2A-1A squad.
Ell-Saline outplayed an excellent Plainville squad Friday night, and should’ve left the Cardinals’ Nest in Brookville for the final time this season as Sectional Champions.
If only the officiating crew could’ve simply followed the time-honored tradition of staying out of the spotlight by not dictating the outcome of a playoff game while the entire season hangs in the balance, especially in a game that, barring the scarring from the stripes, would otherwise have been remembered at one of the classic playoff victories in the storied history of Ell-Saline Cardinal football.
By Morgan Lillich