With a 36-14 halftime lead evaporating, frontline players vanishing and hopes of a home playoff berth sinking Friday night, the Conway Christian Eagles hung on by two remaining ruffled feathers.
The game, and another playing date at Mission Field, teetered on a 2-point conversion attempt, a scramble for a bouncing ball and a third-and-5 play against a Two Rivers team that created serious choppy waters for CCS the second half.
The Gators (5-3, 3-3) drew within 36-34 on a 10-yard pass from Blake Noakes to Josh Thomas with 2:13 left. Wide receiver Matthew Rose lined up at quarterback with Noakes, who rushed for 193 yards the second half from a direct snap at quarterback, at tailback. Rose flipped to Noakes on a slow-developing option that fooled no one. Mark Harris, Landon Lagree, Matt Austin and Kirby Powell had the play covered on the perimeter and corraled Noakes about 2 yards from the goal.
Then, in a large pileup along the sideline, the Eagles (6-3, 5-2) came up with the onside kick.
Two Rivers took its final timeout with 1:25 left and CCS facing third and 5 at the Two Rivers 47. Ashton Robinson, hit after the first yard, spun and churned and dove for the first down by inches, allowing the Eagles to survive by a beak.
The victory clinched a third-place finish in the 5-2A Conference and a home field berth for the first round of the playoffs in two weeks, likely against Salem.
"That’s basically our third-team fullback who makes the run that clinches it," said John Flaherty, CCS offensive coordinator.
"It seemed like every time the game was on the line and we needed a first down, he (Robinson) got it," said Conway Christian coach Chuck Speer about the junior who normally plays wide receiver but was plugged into an energency backup role.
Robinson was playing running back because Adam Ragland, the Eagles’ leading rusher, has two dislocated shoulders and saw very limited action, mostly as a decoy. He carried four times for minus-4 yards. But he could not raise his arms above his chest so he had no leverage.
Several Eagles got banged and bruised during the game, including starting linebacker Jonathan Watson and wide receiver/defensive back Jeremy Jacobs, who were out most of the fourth quarter.
"We were running out of plays," Flaherty said. "When you’ve got some backups in to begin with and then your using backups to backups, you’ve got one-fourth to one-half of your offense and we pretty much used our plays the first half."
The Eagles used some gadgetry, power and finesse amassing 312 yards of offense the first half and scoring 36 points against a team that had allowed 57 all season and no more than 15 in a game.
"We were clicking for awhile, then we got a little banged up and run down the second half," Speer said. "We didn’t shut down our offense, but the game changed in a hurry that we had try to do what we can to get out with a win. This is about the third time this year we’ve scored 36 or so points in a half, then had trouble scoring the second half and held on. This kind of stuff is increasing my gray hairs."
The Gators had two first downs and 113 total yards in the first half against an often-blitzing CCS defense.
Things turned the second half when Noakes took the snap and read the defense behind zone blocking and began shredding the Eagle defense in large chunks. He capped a 68-yard touchdown drive in the third quarter with a 4-yard keeper. Jackson Wilson intercepted the two-point conversion attempt in the end zone, a play that grew in significance as the minutes ticked away in the fourth quarter.
The momentum shifted dramatically on two plays. The Eagles mixed it up on the perimeter and with power with Bates Isom in driving to the Two Rivers 17. Ritchey Shannon, beaten a couple of times the first half, intercepted Kirby Powell in the end zone.
The Gators took over at the 20, Noakes found a seam, cut to the sideline and scampered to the end zone to put the CCS crowd in shock. Wesley Damon, who rushed for 134 yards on 14 carries, drew Two Rivers within 36-28 with 7:57 left.
That got even tighter with the touchdown with 2:13 left.
"That’s the way they are," Speer said. "They’ve been a big-play team all season."
Noakes finished with 215 yards on 19 carries.
The Eagles actually stumbled out of the gate when Isom, who rushed for 158 yards on 12 carries, lost a fumble on the Two Rivers 24. Noakes, who also plays safety, picked it up and outran the CCS posse down the sideline for a 76-yard touchdown with 10:08 left in the first quarter. Fabian Robledo fumbled the snap on the extra-point kick, ran to one sideline, then to the other end of the field before finally lateraling the ball to Noakes, who outraced the CCS defenders to the corner of the end zone for two points.
Facing fourth and 8 on the Two Rivers’ 38, the Eagles resorted to nicely executed trickery. They lined up in punt formation. A short snap was handed to Isom, who lined up as a blocking back, between his legs. The flow of the other backs and receivers went one way. Isom and the offensive linemen on his side paused for about two seconds, then the CCS running back tucked the ball and found a seam for a 38-yard touchdown. Powell passed to Robinson for the two-point conversion that tied things at 8.
The Eagles seemed to break things open with a 28-point second quarter.
The onslaught began when Powell connected with Tyler Kalahiki on a deep sideline rout for a 34-yard touchdown on third and nine, the first touchdown of the CCS senior’s career.
A 56-yard scamper by Isom got the Eagles moving on an 80-yard scoring drive on their next possession. Robinson found a hole off tackle for a 4-yard touchdown and Powell passed to Kalahiki for a 2-point conversion to put the Eagles up 22-8 with 5:30 left in the half.
Damon’s 34-yard touchdown run off tackle pulled the Gators with 22-14, but they then missed a two-point conversion attempt after a fumbled snap.
Andrew Dather, the quarterback on the junior high team who was activated for this game after his season had ended, lined up at halfback after CCS drove to the Two Rivers 31. Dather lofted a deep pass to Jeremy Jacobs, who outjumped Rose in the end zone for the touchdown that gave CCS a 28-14 lead with 3:04 left.
With 2:14 left in the half, the Eagles, powered by passes of 12 yards from Powell to Kalahiki and 17 yards to Jacobs, drove to the Two Rivers 4. Robinson scored on an off tackle play to up the count to a seemingly safe 36-14 at the half.
Because Hector has forfeit its season, CCS will not play next week meaning it has two weeks to get ready for its second playoff appearance in two years of 11-man football.
"We’ll take the time to get a lot of our players healed and we’ll get to scout next week," Speer said.