There were plenty of tears shed by bone-weary Wood River High School football players Friday at the end of an emotional, exhausting and absorbing Great Basin Conference West game at Jerome.
Seeking its first-ever football win at Jerome, Wood River came to play and built a 17-6 halftime lead—only to see the resurgent Tigers score two unanswered touchdowns in the second half to eke out an 18-17 conference triumph.
Winless last season, Jerome (4-3, 1-1 league) won its second straight game for coach Gary Krumm. Wood River (4-3, 1-1) saw its two-game winning streak come to an end.
"The kids were devastated," said second-year Wood River head coach Mike Glenn.
"Our emotion carried us all game and we got more physical at the end of the game, which is something we can build on. The kids were just swarming to the ball. Just step back from the idea of wins and losses for a moment and see how far they've come. We were right there. I was proud."
Jerome's winning touchdown came with six minutes left in the fourth quarter. Never quitting, Wood River's offense moved deep into Tiger territory twice—first stopped by an interception and finally by two bad snaps on potential game-winning field goals with 34 seconds left that would have covered 36 and 35 yards.
The potentially decisive field goals were make-able distances for Hailey senior Cory Rutkowski, who had kicked a school-record 47-yard field goal giving the Wolverines a 10-0 lead in the first half. Glenn calls Rutkowski the best kicker in the state. But he never got a chance to kick and Jerome hung on.
One of the many stars for Wood River was junior tailback Matt Libert.
He enjoyed a season-best rushing performance with 37 carries for 173 yards—130 of those yards on 24 carries in the second half. It was his sixth consecutive 100-yard rushing game and improved his season totals to 161 carries, 841 yards.
Libert's running and second-effort were the main ingredient of two lengthy Wood River drives in the fourth quarter that came up empty with interceptions in the red zone. His 23-yard run from midfield with a minute left set up Wood River's game-winning field goal tries.
"Matt had a great game," said Glenn. "Jerome was coming hard and filling holes and tackling him in the first half. Once our line started putting bodies on people and we went to a true zone scheme with our offense in the second half, it gave our back a chance to run. And Matt started to run the ball with authority."
Defensively, the big-time playmakers at Jerome were seniors Jeff Conover and Anthony Quarles.
Conover recovered two fumbles in key situations and returned an interception for a touchdown—Wood River's first defensive TD. Quarles wrapped up the Tiger quarterback and forced the interception.
Earlier, Quarles and top tackler Danny Ward combined on a gang tackle to stop a Jerome long gainer and Conover recovered the fumble in the end zone for a touchback that ended the threat.
"The defense played well," said Glenn.
Wood River is preparing for its "Senior Night" league game against two-time defending Great Basin champion Minico of Rupert Friday, Oct. 20 at 7 p.m. at Phil Homer Field in Hailey. It's the final home game for 21 Hailey seniors.
Minico (6-1, 2-0 league) has won at home 20-14 over Jerome and 40-8 over Burley. Spartan junior quarterback Dane Broadhead threw for over 200 yards and three TDs in Friday's win over Burley (0-7, 0-2).
Glenn said, "Minico's quarterback is pretty good and they definitely have some kids we have to stop. They also have a real fast running back, although he isn't real big. On defense Minico is very active. But, you know, Jerome had some good, fast skilled kids and we kept them in check. It's pretty simple. You've just got to go out and play ball."
Wood River, which entered the Great Basin Conference West in 2004, has only played Minico twice—a 34-12 home loss in 2004 and a 27-8 loss in Rupert last September. Although the Spartans are 13-4 the last two seasons in 4A, they were 3-6 in 2004 and 2-7 in 2003.
Down to the wire at Jerome
Glenn and his coaching staff spent two weeks on a game plan for Jerome and it came crashing down Wednesday, two days before the game.
They learned senior defensive back Drew Anderson and junior tight end/linebacker Erik Jacobson would be sidelined Friday with concussions.
Jacobson is the normal field goal snapper, which played a role at the end. But the 6-5, 235-pounder was also tough to replace on offense, Glenn said. "It seemed like we had to cut out half our stuff because the things he does make our offense go. He's a great run blocker for us."
Fortunately, clutch tackles by Conover and junior Jared Rade stopped Jerome's first drive covering five minutes at the Wolverine 35. And Wood River's offense drove 80 yards in 10 plays for a 7-0 lead—the big play a 28-yard pass from Danny Kramer to Danny Ward featuring a nice crack-back block by Conover.
Two plays later, Conover and Casey Bennett stripped the ball from Tiger senior tailback Jason Capps (9 carries, 124 yards) and Ward recovered at the Tiger 35. Two running plays and a pass went nowhere, and Rutkowski calmly belted his 47-yard field goal that landed a full eight to nine yards behind the goalposts.
Wood River's early 10-0 lead and the intensity of the visitors seemed to catch Jerome off guard. To the Tiger credit, they began to stiffen their resolve with excellent stunting defense that caused the Wolverine offense to go four-and-out-and-punt for the remainder of the first half.
Jerome scored after a 41-yard pass completion from QB Naithon Cook to Travis Cooley.
And the Tigers nearly scored again when Cook connected with Sean Stadelman with a short pass and Stadelman found 50 yards of running room to the Wolverine five. There, Quarles and Ward tackled him from behind. The ball popped loose and bounced into the end zone, where Conover recovered it just before it went out.
Stopped again by the Tiger defense, Wood River went back on defense. On the first play, Cook dropped back to pass in play action but Quarles wasn't fooled. He blitzed and wrapped Cook up. Under pressure, Cook tried to shovel a pass ahead. Conover alertly caught it and returned the interception 59 yards for a 17-6 lead at halftime.
By this time, the big crowd of Wood River supporters was making much, much more noise than Jerome. Little did they know that it was also the end of Wood River's scoring.
In the second half Jerome's Cook (10-for-18, 213 yards) went to the pass more frequently. He completed four of five passes for 59 yards on Jerome's 10-play, 78-yard TD drive that cut Wood River's lead to 17-12 in the third. Carter Stewart busted through and stopped the extra point pass—big stuff, since it was a five-point game.
Coach Glenn was prophetic on the next Wood River drive, muttering "This might be good," just before Kramer connected with Ward on a long 41-yard pass that re-invigorated the Hailey offense as the fourth quarter got underway.
Helped by a pass interference call, the Wolverines marched to the six. On third-and-goal, Kramer threw up a dying quail that Cooley intercepted along the left sideline.
A Rutkowski field goal in that case would have made it an eight-point game, and the Wood River coaches certainly considered it.
Six minutes remained when Jerome pass receiver David Prescott beat the Wolverine defense for a 49-yard TD pass from Cook and the Tigers took their first lead at 18-17.
Really, the end game was just beginning.
Ward's 19-yard kickoff return brought it to the 30 and Kramer hit Ward on a little out for 11 more yards. That's when Libert started running wild. Eleven yards around right end, 11 more on a counter, and 10 behind Collin Hand's lead block. The yardage got tougher but still Libert ran hard. He made it to the Jerome six before a holding call moved Wood River back to the 20.
Glenn said Wood River made a little adjustment in its passing game and called for a bubble screen on second-and-16. He said, "But our blockers didn't pick up a linebacker coming through."
That linebacker, Jason Capps, tackled Kramer as he threw and the ball floated tantalizingly up in the air. The only player who saw it well and the whole way was Jerome's Tucker Thompson, who intercepted it among a crowd of players battling unbeknownst at the scrimmage line.
So Jerome took over with two minutes left. The Tigers sent Steven Kincheloe on the run and he found daylight for 23 yards to the 48-yard-line. It seemed like nine Wood River defenders tackled him there and expert ballhawker Conover ripped the ball loose and recovered the fumble.
"The guys just ripped the ball out," said Glenn. "And because of (Matt) Libert's running we got it back down the field and started feeling good about our chances of winning the game."
Wood River took its final time out at 1:08 and on the next play Libert rolled through a huge hole for 23 yards and out-of-bounds at the Tiger 24. He went straight ahead for six more then Kramer lined the team up and threw the ball down to stop the clock with 42 seconds remaining.
Rutkowski and Ward came on the field and set up shop at the Jerome 26. The first snap was low. Holder Ward picked it up and ran like a wild man for the sideline. He got back to the scrimmage line, stopped the clock and gave Rutkowski one more attempt on fourth down from the 18. They lined up at the 25-yard-line.
This time, the snap was too high. Once again Ward made the instantaneous decision to abandon the field goal and try to gain 10 yards for a first down—and one more chance—with 34 seconds left. But this time Jerome's defense busted through to bring Ward down behind the line.
After going through the handshake line, Glenn gathered his distraught players and staff behind the player bench and said two things.
The first was, "Did you play hard?" The players glumly nodded. The coach added, "That's all that matters!" Then he said with authority, "We are going to beat Minico, mark my words. We have come so far!"
What did last weekend's football scores mean in the 4A playoff scenario?
By that, we're talking about Jerome beating Wood River 18-17, Bonneville of Idaho Falls upsetting favored Blackfoot 24-7 and Pocatello slipping by Century 13-10.
Here's a look:
If Minico (6-1, 2-0 league) beats Wood River (4-3, 1-1) this Friday night and Bonneville of Idaho Falls (3-4, 2-0) wins at Rigby (2-5, 1-1):
The #4-ranked Spartans would win the Great Basin Conference West title with an undefeated 3-0 mark for a second straight year and would host the third-place Sixth District team in the preliminary State 4A playoff round Oct. 27.
Minico's opponent would be Rigby, if Bonneville beats Rigby.
In that case and assuming Jerome wins at Burley Friday, Jerome would earn the Great Basin second seed because of its win over Wood River and would travel to top-ranked and two-time state runner-up Pocatello (6-1, 26-5 three years) Oct. 27.
Wood River would be the third seed and would travel to Sixth District champ Bonneville Oct. 27.
Meanwhile, in the other Oct. 27 preliminary round game matching the Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Districts, Blackfoot (4-3, 1-1) would travel to the winner of this Friday's Fifth District runner-up game between Century (3-4) and Preston (4-3).
The Blackfoot-Century/Preston game is important to Wood River's interests because that winner would face the Wood River/Bonneville winner in the official eight-team State 4A playoffs Nov. 3. Wood River by beating Bonneville would travel to either Blackfoot, Century or Preston to do that.
If Wood River beats Minico and Rigby beats Bonneville Friday:
A three-way tie for first place with no easy head-to-head tiebreakers would exist between Minico, Jerome and Wood River, all with 2-1 records, and Bonneville, Rigby and Blackfoot, with 2-1 marks.
Wood River athletic director Ron Martinez said a Texas shootout would be held Monday, Oct. 23 at 6 p.m. at a neutral site, Valley High School in Hazelton, if the Wolverines beat Minico and Jerome takes care of Burley this Friday. The match-ups and order of play haven't been decided. Let's say Wood River and Jerome face off first. Each team would have a possession and attempt to score from the 40-yard-line. If neither team scores, the ball would be moved to the 10-yard-line and played from there until there is a final outcome. One team would be eliminated and would take the third seed, then the two remaining teams would face off for the top two seeds.
The Sixth District teams would probably have a similar shootout in the event of a tie.
WOLVERINE NOTES—No complete Idaho records exist for all regular-season prep grid games, but Rutkowski's 47-yard field goal held by Ward Friday at Jerome tied a state record if you compare his kick to the previous state playoff records listed by the Idaho High School Activities Association. The 4A state playoff record is Ryan Bloxham's 47-yarder for Burley in 1990, and the 5A record is Kyle Jackson's 45-yarder for Highland of Pocatello in 1995. Rutkowski (7 field goals, 35 points season) has been uncanny with his accuracy, making 14-of-14 extra points and drilling touchback kickoffs into the end zone more than 90% of the time....Although Wood River is now 0-18 at Jerome dating to 1969, Friday's result was the closest game since Jerome's 14-8 home win in 1972. Jerome leads the series 30-4...
Senior lineman Casey Bennett showed great determination by playing most of the game with his leg cramping up. He walked stiff-legged from the huddle to the line on offense, and played defense as well. Bennett never came out. Coach Glenn said, "Casey fought cramps the whole game. He and other kids, like Conover, Ward, Libert, Collin Hand and Carter Stewart made maximum effort and played with all their heart. They just never quit. It was a shame to come up empty."...Senior cornerback Stewart had perhaps his best game, making many open-field tackles to upend Jerome runners.
The kicking game was a big part of Friday's contest. Jerome punter Tyler Lott averaged 38.6 yards on five punts.....Wood River was fortunate to have a 17-6 lead because its offense went four-and-out and punted on its final three possessions after the Wolverines took an early 10-0 lead.....Senior Tyler Hendricks pounced on a Matt Libert fumble to keep possession for the Hailey squad just one play before Danny Kramer hit Vincent Vertneg with a 23-yard TD pass and 6-0 Wolverine lead... Deliberate with its offense and relying on good field position from the outset, Wood River has allowed only one touchdown, at Buhl, in the first quarters of its seven games. But the Wolverines (21.9 ppg offense, 19.4 ppg defense) are being outscored 49-21 in the fourth quarters.....Hailey hasn't lost a fumble in its two league games to date.....Matt Libert's six straight 100-yard rushing efforts are 135 against Preston, 116, 111, 116, 102 and 173. He is tied with Danny Ward as the team's leading scorers, 38 points apiece....Ward has 23 pass receptions for 581 yards.
For the season Wood River has 247 carries for 1071 rushing yards, compared to 266-1184 for opponents. Passing yardage is close as well, 881 for Wood River and 862 for its foes. But there's a big discrepancy in penalty yardage, 532 whistled on Wood River and 347 against its opponents.