The Muskie football team saw their comeback bid fall just short in the annual Homecoming game here Friday afternoon.
The black-and-gold scored a pair of touchdowns late in the fourth quarter, but still fell 24-22 to the Daniel McIntyre Maroons.
Turnovers were the squad’s Achilles heel as many ball carriers found it difficult to find a grip on the pigskin in the drizzly conditions at Muskie Field. The offence turned the ball over six times while the Maroons forced a couple more turnovers on special teams.
“We’ve got to run more stuff in practice to protect the football, there’s no doubt about it,” head coach Chad Canfield acknowledged.
“That was the difference.
“It was sloppy out there, but we need to do a better job keeping two hands on the football,” he stressed.
“That’s something we can fix,” Canfield noted. “That’s something we can stress, and hopefully we’ll improve on it.”
The game opened promisingly for the Muskies (1-2), who held the Maroons’ offence in check and even tallied the first point of the game when the ball skipped through the end zone after a Maroon returner couldn’t handle Britton Green’s punt.
Daniel Mac (3-0) was able to rev its attack midway through the second quarter as Tre Jackson rumbled for an 18-yard touchdown.
But the convert was unsuccessful and the Maroons led 6-1.
Then in the dying seconds of the quarter, quarterback Tobijah Gerber marched the Muskies down the field, with help from his favourite target, Brad McDonald.
To help the drive, McDonald hauled in a 47-yard pass-and-run to set the Muskies up in the Maroon zone. Then he caught a 24-yard bomb from Gerber, shaking off a Maroon defender and just breaking the plane of the goal line.
With the convert, Fort High led 8-6 at the half.
The second half didn’t start as Fort High had envisioned as Daniel Mac recovered its own kick-off in Fort High’s half of the field. Soon after, Benedict Muhima pounded his way to paydirt to put the Maroons up 13-6.
On the Maroons’ next possession, Muhima pulled out a similar trick and the visitors quickly were ahead 20-8.
Daniel Mac extended its lead to 24-8 after a rouge late in the third quarter and then a field goal early in the fourth.
The Muskie attack was plagued with ball security issues, turning the ball over six times in all, but was able to get things going late in the game.
Gerber marched the ball downfield, eventually allowing running back Tyler Abma to pound it in at 4:04.
The two-point conversion was successful as Gerber connected with McDonald in the end zone to bring close the gap to 24-16.
On the ensuing kick-off, the Muskies were able to get one of their turnovers back—recovering the ball on the short kick that a Maroon player mishandled.
After a circus catch by McDonald to march the Muskies forward, Abma plunged in for another major to bring Fort High to within 24-22 with 2:50 to go.
But the two-point convert failed. And although the Muskies did get the ball back once more, the black-and-gold could not engineer a final drive.
Still, Canfield was proud that the black-and-gold were able to rally, starting with the almost ironic kick-off recovery.
“It was a great job by our guys,” he lauded. “The kick’s actually not supposed to go that far, but it ended up working out for us.
“We had our chance. It was there,” Canfield added. “But we just ended up falling a little bit short.”
Besides the coaches’ messages of hope, a few veterans got involved vocally on the bench as Daniel Mac built its lead.
“We’re starting to get a little more leadership on the team,” Canfield noted. “We’ve always had the play-makers—we’ve always had Tyler Abma, we’ve always had Cody Bodnar, we’ve always had Brad McDonald.
“Those guys have always been play-makers and now they’re starting to be leaders.
“It’s a step in the right direction when they rally the guys up when they say, ‘We can’t quit here,’” Canfield added.
“That really motivates guys to come back.”
After combining for just 17 points in their first two games of the WHSFL season, the Muskie offence finally was able to find some footing as Gerber seems to add some new weapons to his arsenal week after week.
This past week, the first-year pivot completed about a dozen passes, tending to target receivers McDonald and Colton Craig.
“Tobijah played amazing,” Canfield enthused. “He’s poised. He’s making good reads.
“He really made some big plays for us and he got us back into the game.”
Canfield feels the next step in Gerber’s development will be to react on the fly and not go through with a play call that ends up looking dangerous.
“We have to do a little bit better job of reading the whole play,” he explained. “Sometimes we have a tendency to, on certain plays, to automatically go to that guy.
“We’ve got to make our plays, make our reads.
“Tobijah’s still in Grade 11 and a first-year starter, so that’s something that’s going to come with a little bit of experience and time,” Canfield reasoned.
McDonald has been a prime beneficiary of Gerber’s progression, and is thrilled the offence is expanding.
“He can throw the ball. He can throw it pretty deep,” McDonald noted. “As long as receivers are getting open, we’re good.
“Our routes are getting run a lot better.”
At points during the game, taking advantage of Gerber’s arm was a necessity as the Maroons keyed in on Abma.
However, at other times, Abma was able to bust out some long runs.
“They stacked up against the run, but it didn’t mean that we couldn’t run the ball,” Canfield recalled. “We were still running the ball fairly well.
“Tyler Abma was picking up some good chunks of yards for us.
“We noticed, as a coaching staff, they were open in the middle there and we just started exploiting it, marched down the field, and were able to get some points off it,” he remarked.
Canfield acknowledged the offence put the defence in some pretty harrowing situations, which made the counter to Daniel Mac’s attack all the more impressive.
The Maroons had combined for 67 points in their first two games entering Friday’s action.
“We put the ball on the ground, and any time you put your defence in a bad spot like that, you’re going to give up points that you shouldn’t be giving up,” Canfield stressed.
Still, there were plays where the Maroons’ backs, especially Muhima, who racked up 256 yards on the ground, were able to run wild.
On several plays, Muhima broke Muskie tackles. Canfield felt bringing him down at first contact would have limited a lot of the damage.
“We’re going to have to work on wrapping up a little bit more,” he noted. “When we’re facing somebody fast, they are getting outside on us a little bit, still.
“We want our [cornerbacks] to play back inside to help,” he added. “That’s how they got their touchdowns on us, was getting outside of our corner.
“It’s just a temporary lapse like that that decides a football game.”
One Muskie who showed a workmanlike effort Friday was veteran lineman Cody Hunsperger, who battled through injury to play a complete game.
“His calf was about the size of a football helmet,” Canfield described. “He had a huge bruise on there and it was really swollen.
“He really played like a warrior. He didn’t come out and didn’t complain about it too much.
“I can’t believe he can even walk, but he was out there playing great football for us,” Canfield added.
The Muskies will hit the halfway point of the regular season this Friday when Stonewall (2-1) pays a visit to Muskie Field at 3 p.m.