Cloudy grey skies domed the long line of fans that waited to buy the hottest ticket in town - entrance to the game that would provide bragging rights on the plateau. The Spartan fans took their seats in the newly sheltered bleachers. The smell of BBQ smoke permeated the air and the Wolves (ranked 27th in the state) entered the stadium ready to take on the Spartans (ranked 7th in the state). Eastlake lined up and kicked off toward a large sign that called out “Welcome to Sparta” as the Wolves’ fans, adorned in red, cheered deafeningly for their team.
The Spartans wasted no time successfully implementing their game plan as they marched almost 90 yards down the field and scored on a 5 yard run up the middle. The score was 7-0 with only a few minutes run off the clock as the Spartans kicked off and were penalized when the ball bounced out-of-bounds.
QB Ben Howard (who would throw 25 completions for 350 yards; a record versus Skyline) was not intimidated by the Spartans as he orchestrated a skillful drive of his own. He connected on a pass to Parker Lester (who would catch 8 passes this day; also a record versus Skyline) for a ten-yard gain on the first play and just a few plays later, he bolted for a 21-yard gain on a delayed QB keeper. Shortly thereafter Howard connected again with Lester for a 27 yard TD pass and the Wolves fans erupted with loud cheers; that were hushed (ever so slightly) when the Wolves did not execute a two point conversion and the score remained unchanged at 7-6.
Cameron Lynch kicked a booming 50 yarder and then made a TD saving tackle as the Spartans returned it 30 yards. Cody Cox played a key role in thwarting the Spartans drive as he tackled a receiver for no gain and broke up a 15-yard pass attempt. Two plays later, Cox received the Spartan’s punt, dodged a defender deep in Eastlake territory and demonstrated his speed and footwork by maneuvering through a cadre of Spartans for a 17-yard return.
The referee placed the ball at the 32-yard line as the offensive line, anchored by Kyle Sihon’s hulking frame hunching over the ball, snapped it to Howard. Howard dropped back and connected on a 5 yard sideline pass to Hank Pladson (who finished the day with 8 catches, tying him with Lester for the record versus Skyline, for 136 yards) who snatched it out of the air and powered over defenders for an additional 5 yards. The Wolves lost momentum after a delay of game penalty and then Skyline’s defense pounced on a fumbled snap.
The Spartans were going crazy with excitement as the offense lined up on the Wolves’ 29-yard line and began their drive. On the third play of the drive Pladson made an impressive tackle that stopped the Spartans’ short of the 1st down marker and making it 4th down and inches on the 20 yard line as the 1st quarter came to an end. The Spartans went for it; - the scoreboard lit up again when their running back shot up the middle and ran into the end zone. The scorekeeper punched in 6 more points and then 1 more with a successful PAT; score 14-6. Skyline kicked the ball out of the bounds for the second time that night and the ball was placed on the 35 yard line.
The Wolves’ offensive lined up on the field and seemed ready to attack, but the Eastlake’s drive was fruitless. They were penalized ten yards and then Parker Lester, after making an excellent 10-yard catch, wasn’t able to come down with a 35 yard pass when his defender hit him; by the rowdiness, it was clear that the spectators saw a catch interference. Unfortunately, the ref did not see it that way and the Wolves were forced to punt.
Jacob Mohrhardt (who would have 14 tackles this day; tying him for second in the Skyline record book) stopped the Spartans for a 1 yard gain and then the Spartans completed a 12 yard pass for a first down. The Spartans were forced to punt after a defensive stand that included a stop by Hunter Klinge and a tackle by the entire Eastlake defense after a three yard gain. The Wolves were aided by a delay of game penalty that sent the Spartans back 5 yards and a powerful rush by Colin Booker who bowled over the blocker in front of him and forced the Spartan QB to quickly throw the ball to avoid a collision; incomplete! The Spartans punted the ball.
The next series exemplified the Wolves’ deficiency for the evening as they had multiple penalties and two sacks that offset the benefits of a 12 yard gain by Cole Brinkman, a 13 yard keeper up the middle by Howard, and an impressive 9 yard sweep through traffic by Cox. Howard then kicked a beautiful 44-yard punt that the Spartans returned for minimal yardage.
The missteps continued as Eastlake was forced to call a timeout to ensure the proper player count on the field. Skyline’s offense was looking invincible on this series as their running back pounded out a 6 yard run and 9 yard run, and their QB connected with an open receiver for a 6 yard completion. However, the Spartans showed they were also disposed to mistakes when they suffered an off sides penalty that upset their rhythm and was followed by two incomplete passes and a punt.
Howard continued to demonstrate his ability to avoid the pass rush as he scrambled free of defenders, took advantage of a great block by Spencer Thompson and found Chris Nelson open in the flat for a 20 plus yard completion. He then followed that up with a 9 yard completion to Lester. The boos echoed across the stadium on the next play as the fans felt the referee should have called pass interference when Howard threw a beautiful pass toward Lester; he looked like he was going to catch it for a 35 yard gain when the Spartan defender collided with him and he bobbled and dropped the ball. It was 3rd down with a yard to go, when Nelson took the hand off and was hit hard for no gain. On the next play the referee was alert and saw the Wolves running back lose his concentration and step forward before the snap. The Wolves now had to punt as the ref placed the ball back five yards and the yardage required for a first down increased to 6. Howard’s punt sailed 38 yards down field to a waiting Spartan who was drilled into the turf by Eric Plummer.
The Spartans series started strong when their QB threw a nice pass to an open receiver for an 11 yard gain. However, this series belonged to the Wolves’ D. Plummer initiated the defensive attack when he beat his man and slammed into the ball carrier on the next play for no gain. Then a chorus of boos erupted from the Eastlake crowd on the next play as the umpire threw a flag when he felt that Plummer had been overly aggressive when he tackled a Spartan and moved the ball forward 15 yards to the 41 yard line. The Wolves’ continued to their defensive attack as their blitzes and aggressive line rushing flustered the Spartan’s QB who threw 2 incomplete passes and then was sacked by Mohrhardt as the half ended.
The Wolves charged onto the field to start the second half focused and ready to play. Klinge received the kickoff and returned it 17 yards. Then Howard threw a bullet to Brinkman for a 12+ yard completion but it was called back due to a Wolves false start penalty. The Eastlake fans grumbling quickly subsided when, facing a 3 & 14, the offensive line, anchored by center Kyle Sihon, provided excellent protection for Howard giving him time to throw a beautiful pass, that cleared the fingertips of a defender by a hair, to Pladson juggled the ball for a second as he battled for it with his defender, managed to gain control of it 17 yards downfield, and then sprinted to gain an additional 36 yards before being tackled from behind. It was forth and 11 as the crowds went silent listening to #7 barked off the count but it was snapped high causing him to bobble and drop it. An alert Nelson picked it up, was hit hard by a Spartan defender and also fumbled the ball that was picked up by the Spartans ending the Wolves’ drive.
Skyline began marching down the field with consecutive gains of 3 yards followed by a 16-yard gain. The Spartans’ trek sputtered as Eastlake held them to minimal gains for two plays and then the 3rd down pass attempt was to no avail as Booker smashed through the offensive line, chased down, and sacked the Spartan QB for a 3 yard loss. The refs were clearly not showing favoritism when the Spartans were now being penalized 15 yards for unsportsmanlike conduct on the ensuing punt.
On the next series, Howard under heavy pressure managed to avoid three defensive linemen trying to devour him, ducked under another, stumbled, regained his footing, and threw a completion to Cox for a 16 yard gain. Howard caught his breath, took the long snap from Sihon, and threw another pass to Pladson who caught it, powered forward, and dragged several Spartans 7 additional yards before succumbing to the weight of six tacklers for a 14 yard gain. A Skyline personal foul gifted an additional 15 yards and then Howard scrambled for an 8 yards. Next Klinge ran a hard slant in between three defenders and caught a thirteen yard pass before a Wolves’ player was penalized for being offside. A defender back showed Lester respect for his impressive play by providing him with a large cushion that Howard took advantage of and hit him for a 10 yard gain. Howard gained 3 yards on a keeper. Pladson beat his man in the end zone and a Spartans defender tackled him before the pass arrived to prevent an easy TD. Howard was sacked for a 2 yard loss making it 4th down and 3. The Wolf Pack roared deafeningly when they decided to go for it. Howard dropped back to pass and threw a bullet through multiple defenders’ arms to Pladson who caught the ball for a TD. Then Cox caught Howard’s pass for 2 extra points and tied the game at 14-14 with 3:32 left in the 3rd quarter.
After a five yard kickoff return, the Spartans running back took the hand off, and bolted 40 yards down field before Klinge thwarted the touchdown when he chased him down and tackled him from behind. The Wolves defensive tightened up and forced Skyline to settle for a field goal put them up 17-14.
Seemingly, the Wolves’ fans hearts all dropped simultaneously. Time seemed to slow to a crawl as an Eastlake returner mishandled the Spartans squib kick; he was able to fall on the ball just before his pursuers reached him. All was well when Pladson caught another pass ten yards down field and dragged a few defenders 4 yards before collapsing under their weight. He made another reception for a 9 yard gain to end the 3rd quarter. The emotional rollercoaster continued as a 25-yard pass was hurled down the field toward Cox who jumped in the air, caught the ball, and then disappointedly, landed out-of-bounds. Then Nelson took a handoff and plunged ahead for a 2 yard gain and then a Spartan sack moved the Wolves back 14-yards. The Wolves’ drive came to an end as their receiver caught a 14 yard pass, ran a few yards, was hit hard, dropped the ball and several Spartan players eagerly jumped on it. The fans did not hesitate to jeer at the ref who had decided the receiver’s knee had not touched the ground before the ball left his arms.
The booing subsided as the Spartans began their drive at their 44 yard line with runs gaining 3, 3, and 4 yards making it 1st & 10. However, the Wolves D stepped up there play and a Spartans punt offered the fans optimism that a victory was achievable. But their faith was challenged again as their QB was sacked for an 8-yard loss at the 3-yard line. The Wolves couldn’t muster a first down and were forced to punt after another Wolves’ penalty.
The Wolves’ D provided one last chance to change the outcome of the game when Booker tackled a runner for a 1 yard gain, Hank Pladson tripped up a ball carrier for 3 yards gain, and on 3rd and 6, Mohrhardt, Elijah Dereemer, and Noah Morse sacked the QB for a 4 yard loss. The Spartans helped out with a delay of game and punted the ball on 4th down and 15 yards from their 49 yard line.
Eastlake orchestrated an aggressive attack that moved the ball down the field leveraging successful pass protection that resulted in a first down after completions of 2, 6, and 5 yards. The Eastlake crowd erupted after a 52 yard completion to Cox who was eventually run down at the 18 yard line. Brinkman caught a pass and was immediately tackled at the 15. The fans gasped and their hearts fell again as each of the next three passes touched their intended receiver’s hands and fell incomplete. The Spartans took over on downs. Reality set in and the Eastlake exuberance stalled - they realized how close they had come to beating their archrivals.
It became evident that the outcome would have been different if the Wolves had eliminated their mistakes: 11 penalties and 4 fumbles. They did take some consolation in the knowledge that they had outgained a strong opponent 399 to 245 total yards; had 4 more first downs; and had 6 tackles for a loss and 2 sacks. They must build on these strengths to ensure their season lives up to their expectations.
We hope to see you Thursday night in Pop Keeney Stadium as the Wolves take on the Inglemoor Vikings!
Thanks to Pat Howard for the statistics.
Thanks to Mohrhardt, Cardwell, Bradley, and Padgett for providing excellent photos.