Missed opportunities, miscues and Highland’s mystifying efficiency on fourth down was altogether too much to for Belmont to overcome.
The host Cardinals scored all four of their touchdowns on fourth down, a true oddball statistic in the game of football, and defensively disrupted the Braves vaunted three-headed rushing attack in a 27-12 WIAA Division 7 Level II playoff victory over their Six Rivers Conference rival Saturday at Highland’s Tyler Field.
“The boys played a very hard fought football game. We made a few mistakes and Highland capitalized on them,” said Belmont head coach Jason Weittenhiller.
Highland (9-2) advanced to face Seneca (9-2), a 20-0 winner over Hillsboro, in a Level III playoff game this Saturday.
Belmont finished the season at 6-5.
“I was very happy how the season turned out. The boys worked hard all year and hopefully it carries over into next season,” added Weittenhiller. “The seniors put in four great years. Many of these guys were three year starters who will be missed next year.”
Highland’s first fourth down strike came on its first drive of the game.
The Cardinals drove to the Braves’ 13-yard-line aided by a 17-yard Caleb Yager run and an offsides penalty, before the Belmont defense stiffened.
The Braves stuffed Highland star running back Tyler Kleist on back-to-back runs, and a Lucas Stoney sack had Belmont one play from getting off the field without allowing points.
But on 4th-and-12 from the 15 Highland’s junior quarterback Blake Bodenstein lofted a perfect touchdown pass to a wide open Bailey Bodenstein, who was freed up on what looked like an obvious pick play.
The point after attempt failed, but the host Cardinals led 6-0 just 3 minutes and 26 seconds into the game.
The rest of the first half was a defensive struggle with the team’s alternating punts on five of the next six drives.
The lone non-punt occurred when Belmont drove to the Highland 23 late in the second quarter, but an overthrown pass to Isaac Haag on 4th-and-3 ended the threat with 3:27 left in the half.
The Braves’ defense then forced a quick three-and-out and when Highland shanked a 10-yard punt Belmont was in scoring position at the Cardinals’ 30-yard-line with 2:23 showing on the clock.
After Avery Wilborn’s first down pass fell incomplete the senior quarterback caught fire and connected with freshman receiver Lane Friedrich on three straight slant patterns to move the ball to the 1-yard-line.
One play later senior fullback David Stoney plowed through a pile of bodies and the Braves had forged a 6-6 tie going into halftime.
A blocked punt by Brandon McCollough on Belmont’s first drive of the second half quickly turned the defensive battle in Highland’s favor.
After taking over at the Braves’ 18, the Cardinals needed just six plays to reach the end zone with Kleist covering the final yard on 4th-and-goal run up the middle. Kleist, who gained a game-high 88 yards on 21 carriers, added the conversion run for a 14-6 lead.
“The blocked punt on our first drive of the second half really hurt.
Late in the third quarter another Belmont miscue set up Highland’s third score. The Cardinals forced a Jeremy Richardson fumble and recovered it on the Braves’ 34.
After Blake Bodenstein was stuffed on 3rd-and-goal from the 1 it appeared the Belmont defense had a chance to complete a tide-turning, goal-line stand.
But on the first play of the fourth quarter a botched handoff on fourth down turned into a lucky bounce for the home team, when the bobbled exchange between Bodenstein and Kleist bounded off the turf right back into the Highland QB’s arms and he wiggled his way into the end zone for a 20-6 lead.
Highland put the final nail in Belmont’s coffin when Bodenstein hit a wide open Levi Linschied on 4th-and-18 for a 20-yard TD pass with 2:41 left in the game.
Up to that point of the second half the Braves had run just 18 second half plays and gained just 35 yards with drive ending in a blocked punt, a punt, a fumble, a turnover on downs and another fumble.
Belmont fought to the very end, driving the length of the field on a number of Wilborn pass completions and scored one final touchdown this season on a Wilborn to Friedrich 9-yard scoring play to account for the final points of the game.
Richardson gained a team-high 49 yards on 12 carries to lead Belmont, which managed just 80 rushing yards on 28 carries. One bright spot was the passing game of Wilborn, who completed 12-of-22 passes for 107 yards and a touchdown.
WIAA Division 7 Level II Playoff
Belmont 29, Highland 12
(from Saturday, Oct. 29 @ Highland)
Belmont 0 6 0 6 - 12
Highland 6 0 8 13 - 27
H - Bailey Bodenstein 15 pass from Blake Bodenstein (kick failed)
B - David Stoney 1 run (kick failed)
H - Tyler Kleist 1 run (Kleist run)
H - Blake Bodenstein 1 run (kick failed)
H - Levi Linscheid 20 pass from Bodenstein (Josh Pink kick)
B - Lane Friedrich 9 pass from Avery Wilborn pass failed)
First downs - B 10, H 7. Rushing - B 28-80, H 45-178. Passing yards - B 107, H 42. Passes - B 12-21-0, H 3-6-0. Fumbles lost - B 3-2, H 2-0 . Penalties-yards - 7-60, H 7-50.
Rushing - B: Jeremy Richardson 12-49; H: Tyler Kleist 21-88, Blake Bodenstein 15-51. Passing - B: Avery Wilborn 12-21-0, 107; H: Blake Bodenstein 3-6-0, 42 Receiving - B: Lane Friederick 7-46; H: Bailey Bodenstein 2-22, Levi Linschied 1-20.