DeKALB – There are plays in a football game that not only turn the tide in a team’s favor, but rip at the soul of their opponent.
Newman found itself on the correct side of many of those plays Friday afternoon, and it went a long way toward the Comets gaining a 35-14 victory against Nashville in the Class 2A state championship game.
After the Comets’ Kye O’Brien fumbled the ball away on his team’s first possession, Andrew Wilson got the ball back on the very next play with an interception that was tipped repeatedly by the Nashville intended receiver before it popped right into Wilson's hands and he was able to corral the ball.
Wilson had another interception on the Hornets’ next possession, after they had reached the Newman 23 and faced a fourth-and-10. Normally an outside linebacker, Wilson was back at safety on that play, and had the ball thrown right to him by Nashville all-state quarterback Cole Malawy.
“It was Cover 4, and I saw a guy slanting across the middle,” Wilson said. “We saw that on film all week and from our scout team. We get good looks from our scout team. That play was just like we had run all week in practice, and I was able to jump the route.”
Newman was up 21-7 at halftime, thanks to a grind-it-out drive and two long TD passes from Jake Ackman to Connor McBride. The Comets sputtered on their opening drive of the third quarter, however. They actually went backward 17 yards, to their own 30, due to penalties and sack yardage.
Enter Nate Ahlers. The senior does all of the kicking and punting for the Comets, and he saved his best punt of the season for that moment. With the roll, it ventured 61 yards to pin the Hornets back on their own 9.
“Our drive stalled, and I knew I had to have a big one for my team,” Ahlers said. “I was able to turn it over and have a really deep punt. It went over his head and took a Newman bounce. That was a huge momentum turner, because we went from being stalled out, which is not normal for us, to having them pinned deep in their red zone.”
The punt, Ahlers noted, was a product of the Comets’ emphasis on special teams.
“A lot of teams treat it just offense and defense, and special teams is just how you trade the ball back and forth,” Ahlers said. “We focus on special teams so much here. The coaches give me a ton of time in practice to work on it.”
Nashville was able to dig out of that hole, however, and on a third-and-9 play from its own 23, Malawy found running back Jullian Melcalf over the middle for a big gainer.
Near midfield, though, Newman’s McBride not only made the tackle, but poked the ball away for his first forced fumble of the season.
“I went a little too high, but I was able to sneak my hand in under the ball and strip it out as he was coming down,” McBride said. “Brady [Stevens] did a great job hopping on the ball. It gave us a lot of energy.”
McBride followed shortly after that with a 24-yard TD run to give his team a 28-7 lead with 3:38 left in the third quarter.
Nashville scored late in third quarter to claw to within 28-14, and had the Comets pinned deep in their own territory on the ensuing possession. On a third-and-10 play from the 15, Wilson, the tight end, snuck away from the line of scrimmage and caught a 13-yard pass from Ackman to keep the drive going with 11:10 on the clock.
Most of Wilson’s receptions this season had been further down the field, to allow his 6-foot-4 frame a chance to dominate smaller defensive backs. This one, however, was a shorter route that Wilson said was the first time all year it was put into use.
“We’ve been waiting for a time like that,” Wilson said. “It was just a little pop pass, just to gain enough yards to get the first down. Jake threw the ball good, everyone sold their fakes and blocked like they needed to, and I got the first down. We’ve had that in our playbook all year, but that was the first time we ran it.”
The clincher for the Comets came via junior linebacker Brett Newman, who took a 30-yard interception to the house with 8:51 left in the fourth quarter. The Hornets flooded the left side of the field with wide receivers on the play.
“I noticed they had only run that specific formation one time before, and it was at the start of the game,” Brett Newman said. “They were keying on me. I just read in between the two blockers and took advantage of the moment. It ended up having a positive outcome.”
It was the sixth state championship for Newman (13-1), and one that appeared unlikely early in the season. The Comets trailed by two touchdowns before rallying to beat Princeton in Week 2, hung on to edge Kewanee in Week 3, and then allowed some big plays to Morrison in a Week 4 loss.
Newman doubters had plenty to crow about at the time, but it’s the Comets who are having the last laugh.
“The people that doubted us, we used that as motivation,” McBride said. “Every week we tried to get better, and in the playoffs, it really showed week by week we got better. We didn’t play a perfect game today, but we did enough to get the job done.”