In a game dominated by a pair of defenses that made stop after stop after stop, the Hamilton offense did just enough at the game's end to give the Huskies' a 14-7 homecoming win over a feisty Highland squad on Friday night.
Tied at seven entering as the fourth quarter started to wind down and with little life shown by either offense, Hamilton (7-2) found a little momentum starting from its 44-yard line, employing a solid run game and taking advantage of a couple of Highland (6-3) penalties to get the ball deep into Hawks' country. The march toward the end zone continued until the team found itself in a fourth-and-one situation inside the Highland 15-yard line with approximately two minutes to go.
Of the Huskies two options in the situation – going for the first down or kicking the short field goal – Hamilton went with the more aggressive of the two, and ended up converting the attempt. A couple of plays later, halfback Tyrell Smith would find the end zone from four yards out to put the Huskies up by seven with 89 seconds left to go.
Highland then had one last shot at a tie game, but the Hamilton defense stopped the Hawks' offense before it could move the ball into the Huskies' side of the field, giving the home team what could prove to be a vital win when playoff seeding begins in a little more than a week.
Hamilton's win came with a few “despites” that could easily have derailed the defending champions, starting with the loss of starting quarterback Sam Sasso to a mild concussion in the first quarter. Due to an ankle injury to backup quarterback James Sosinski, the Huskies had to put in their junior varsity starting quarterback, Jake Lewis, who was called up earlier in the week. Lewis' experience on the team prior to this week was non-existent; his name doesn't appear on the team's roster, and even coach Steve Belles forgot his name momentarily after the game.
In the relief effort, Lewis completed five of six passes for 38 yards and did not turn the ball over once.
“For a sophomore whose never played a varsity game, he did a heck of a job,” Belles said.
Belles said Sasso could make it back for Hamilton's season finale at Perry, but might have to wait another week until the Huskies' first-round playoff game.
A second “despite” Hamilton surpassed to win came in the form of the three fumbles it lost in the first three quarters, one of which came at the team's own 28-yard line midway in the second quarter. Highland took advantage of the field position in a drive that included a 20-yard catch and run by Jake Brown on fourth and nine and concluded with a five-yard touchdown pass from Blake Young to Trey Tyler.
Those seven points were the only ones the Hamilton defense would allow, as the unit allowed Highland to convert just seven first downs and three of 12 third-down attempts in the win. The Hawks' defense was almost a good, allowing 12 first downs and stopping Hamilton on nine of its 11 third-down attempts.
The difference, however, came with 13 seconds left in the half, when Morris Kroma snagged a punt and scooted 77 yards for a touchdown that tied the score temporarily. Hamilton set up the play beforehand by using its final timeout of the half – a decision Belles said came after a short conference with his special teams coach. It almost didn't work – Belles admitted Kroma was just inches away from going out of bounds – but the touchdown return would turn out to be the one crucial difference in the game.
“There's no second guessing; they made a play and we didn't,” said Highland coach Pete Wahlheim of the play.
Highland 7, Hamilton 14
Highland 0 7 0 0 – 7
Hamilton 0 7 0 7 – 14
First Downs: Highland 7, Hamilton 12
Rushing: Highland 27-100, Hamilton 38-109
Passing (Comp.-Att.-TD-INT): Highland 9-23-72-1-1, Hamilton 8-10-61-0-0
Fumbles-lost: Highland 0-0, Hamilton 3-3
Penalties-yards: Highland 8-72.5, Hamilton 5-35
Highland – Trey Tyler 5-yard reception from Blake Young (Noah Miller kick)
Hamilton – Morris Kroma 77-yard punt return (Brandon Krcilek kick)
Hamilton – Tyrell Smith 4-yard run (Krcilek kick)
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