LAWRENCE – They cried because they knew this ending could have been different.
Northwest’s senior class has helped elevate the football program in coach Steve Martin’s third season, but couldn’t take it as high as it wanted with its season ending Friday in a 27-16 loss to Free State in the first round of the Class 6A playoffs.
“It was a heartbreaker,” Northwest senior Dylan Brazell said.
“We know we should have won that game,” another senior, lineman Matt Washee, said.
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Instead of celebrating a game where its offense moved almost effortlessly between the 20-yard lines and its defense stopped Free State 13 out of 16 times on third down, Northwest was devastated by its own mistakes in defeat.
Six drives ended in Free State territory without points. Four turnovers ended promising drives. A roughing the punter penalty on fourth-and-18 when Northwest was set to reacquire the ball, down 17-16, with a little less than four minutes left in the game.
That’s how a team can out-perform its opponent in nearly every statistical category and lose the game.
“We beat ourselves,” Martin said. “We were the better football team. It just stinks for our seniors right now and I feel for them, because we all feel like we should playing at home next week. It just didn’t happen. Too many mistakes....”
The frustration began to build after Northwest’s biggest play of the second half, when Karol Williams took a direct snap on fourth-and-2 and ran untouched 28 yards for a touchdown. The extra-point attempt was blocked, allowing Free State to retain its lead, 17-16, entering the final quarter.
Northwest’s defense, resilient the entire night, gave the offense an opening to open the fourth quarter when it stonewalled Free State on fourth down at the Firebirds’ 43-yard line.
A go-ahead touchdown drive seemed imminent, but an errant snap from the 10-yard line brought on disaster. After the ball sailed by him, quarterback K’Veion Richard attempted to scoop and run with the ball. Instead, he couldn’t gain a handle and Free State fell on the fumble.
“It’s very frustrating because we felt like we could run the ball on them the whole time,” Martin said. “Between the 20s, we dominated the game. To only score 16 points, that’s not good. That’s not what we do. We were not ourselves tonight. We just shot ourselves in the foot all night long.”
Martin’s point was valid: Northwest averaged seven yards per play on its 53 snaps between the 20-yard lines, producing six plays of 20 yards or longer. When it moved inside the 20, Northwest had just four of its 16 plays go for longer than three yards.
“The offense and the defense never could get on the same page,” Brazell said. “It always seemed like it was either the offense or the defense having a good game. We haven’t been able to level it out. Just a lot of mistakes and a lot of miscommunication.”
Even with all of its blunders, Northwest was still set to receive a punt that would give it the ball back down by one point with 3:48 to go. But the Grizzlies chased a block and the forward momentum of the attackers brought them crashing into the punter after the kick.
It gave Free State an automatic first down and three plays later, it scored on a 29-yard pass from Torneden to Joel Spain for a 24-16 lead with 2:25 left.
On its second play of the ensuing drive, Richard (8 for 22 passing for 118 yards) was intercepted. A few minutes later, Free State secured the game with a 33-yard line-drive field goal by Daniel Clarke.
“This was not an easy game,” Free State coach Bob Lisher said. “I didn’t breathe easy until the final second ticked off. We had to give everything we had for 48 minutes to come out on top. We had to have some good fortune come our way, too.”
That’s not much consolation for Northwest.
It would have been easier, less cruel, if there were no could-haves or would-haves to think about.
Instead, Northwest served itself a platter of questions to wonder about in the offseason.
“It hurts, but we’ve got to learn from this,” Martin said. “We have 19 seniors that have helped build this program in Year 3 of our system. It just hurts we couldn’t go further. It just didn’t happen. We beat ourselves.”
FS – Clarke 23 FG
NW – McGaugh 10 run (Travis kick)
FS – Bowen 29 run (Clarke kick)
NW – Travis 31 FG
FS – Torneden 5 run (Clarke kick)
NW – Williams 28 run (kick failed)
FS – Spain 29 pass from Torneden (Clarke kick)
FS – Clarke 33 FG
Rushing – Northwest, Rounds 15-118, McGaugh 19-84, Richard 11-70, Williams 2-32; Free State, Bowen 19-69, El-Amin 12-65, Torneden 21-56.
Passing – Northwest, Richard 8-22-118-2; Free State, Torneden 7-15-117-0.
Receiving – Northwest, McGaugh 3-66, Bott 2-29, Williams 2-23; Free State, Spain 3-78, Keating 3-39, Bowen 1-0.