RENSSELAER — Adversity punched Rensselaer Central’s football team in the face Friday night.
Luckily for the Bombers and coach Chris Meeks, they had two seniors who withstood those haymakers and pulled their team out of the ashes.
RCHS withstood five turnovers, countless penalties and personnel losses to overcome the Kougars, 13-9, Friday in the 48th edition of the Cracker Barrel series.
It came courtesy of senior quarterback Eli Hickman’s 32-yard touchdown pass to senior receiver Noah Bierma with 1:53 left in the game. Facing a third-and-15 from KV’s 32, Meeks gave Hickman a couple of options with his play-calling. He could pass the ball to a streaking back down the sidelines or hit a streaking Bierma down the middle of the field.
Hickman chose the latter, hitting Bierma in stride as he crossed the end zone to put the Bombers ahead for the first time in the game.
“We played backyard football,” Hickman said. “It was not drawn up like that. My main target was the wheel. I scrambled and I saw him and I trust him. He’s my dude. I threw it up and I knew he’d get it.”
Bierma said the ball seemed to float in the air far too long.
“Coach just dialed it up and we said let’s go for it,” he said. “We didn’t really have our full personnel in, but we worked with it and the players stepped up. When I took off down the field, I was open off the get-go, I thought. I felt like I was. I saw him scrambling in the backfield and I just kept trying to get open. I just got under it, caught it in the end zone, and it felt great.”
The Bombers went deep into the play book for their game-winner.
“It’s something we haven’t ran this year,” Meeks said. “We’ve probably ran that particular play a couple of times over the course of the summer and the preseason, but it’s always something we’ve had in our back pocket. It’s something that’s been good to us. It worked out well. It was perfect timing from the standpoint we hadn’t run that formation. Kv hadn’t seen that. Our two seniors executed it perfectly. And give our line credit. They gave him time to throw it. It was a beautiful ball and he made a nice catch. Bottom line, we just made one more play than they did.”
KV still had time left to answer the score, but a potential scoring drive deteriorated after seven plays, giving the ball back to the Bombers near midfield with over 20 seconds remaining.
Hickman completed 3 of 5 passes for 55 yards and a score. Bierma’s only catch came on the touchdown play, but he ran the ball 18 times for 128 yards.
The Bombers ran the ball 42 times overall, totaling 230 yards.
Nathan Swafford led the Kougars with 96 yards on 28 carries and quarterback Eli Carden completed 10 of 23 passes for 115 yards with two interceptions.
The Kougars had several dropped passes that negated any momentum.
“I really do believe we have a good offense,” KV coach James Broyles said, “It’s just meshing everything together. Tonight, we had a lot of opportunities literally go through our hands. There were a lot of balls that we drop. It’s a credit to them. Some of them they were there, some of them they weren’t and just did get them. It will click, I hope. It’s got to.”
The team’s combined for eight turnovers, with the Bombers coughing the ball up five times, including three special teams miscues.
One of those muffs led to KV’s only touchdown of the night. Markus Ritchie recovered a dropped punt at Rensselaer’s 13-yard line. Swafford then needed just three running plays to punch in the game’s first score, a 1-yard plunge with 2:02 left in the first half.
Ritchie’s missed extra-point gave KV a 6-0 heading into the locker room.
“We talked in the locker room at halftime how we faced adversity the whole first half,” Hickman said. “We said how we come out in the second half determines our season. If we come out and lay down, we’re done.”
KV’s defense was stout, forcing the Bombers into fourth-and-longs on several drives early in the game.
“They’re big and strong up front,” Meeks said of KV’s veteran defense. “Being a 2A school, it’s tough going up against these 4A schools. There is a size difference up front. We didn’t handle it well. But in the second half we stepped up.”
KV took a 9-0 lead after Ritchie drove a 41-yard field goal between the goal posts with 9:16 left in the third period.
But the Bombers regained new life when Ryan Stokes scooped up a punt snap that sailed over KV punter Carden’s head. Stokes then carried it into the end zone from 32 yards out to pull Rensselaer within two points at 9-7.
Stokes was inserted into the game after senior linebacker Luke Standish was kicked out of the game for throwing a punch at a KV offensive player. The Bombers were playing without sophomore speedster Dylan Kidd due to injury and lost two-way lineman Jared Riegle to an ankle injury as well as Dalton Kidd to a leg injury.
Kiren Hesson led the Bombers with 11 tackles and Hickman and Addison Wilmington had interceptions.
“My biggest positive tonight is the fact we overcame adversity,” Meeks said. “Last year, we probably wouldn’t have won this game. We had some guys out with some fluke injuries. We had four or five guys who stepped right in there. I thought Addison Wilmington did a great job for us. He had been out with an ankle sprain, ended up getting his practices in and ran the ball well. Kaden Pinkerman hadn’t played freshman, sophomore or junior year and stepped in there and played great defense for us. Ryan Stokes, he’s a tweener; going to play some JV and varsity, but he got us ignited. He picks that ball up and scores; just a sophomore. Just many positives.”
It appeared KV had control of the game until Rensselaer’s last-minute drive that began at its own 20-yard line. The Bombers used eight plays and withstood holding and illegal block penalties along the way to score the game winner.
Broyles felt his team defense followed the game plan to the letter until a playmaker on Rensselaer’s side of the ball — Bierma — got loose at the end.
“Our guys knew what was coming. Everybody knows what’s coming,” Broyles said. “They’re going to run the ball right up your hind end. For the most part, we hunkered down, but again, they beat us with the pass.
“They had to make a play and they did.”
It’s the third straight win in the Barrel series for the Bombers, who are 15-6 against KV under Meeks.
“We stepped up the second half and just kept fighting,” Bierma said. “We were working together. We’ve got some things to improve on, but it felt good to get the win.”