Turnovers have been a major downfall this season for the North Medford football team and Friday against McNary was another example. Except this time it was quality, not quantity, that made the difference.

On the final play of the first half, North gambled on its own end of the field and was burned badly, leading to a momentum-changing touchdown for McNary, which went on to win the nonleague game 40-20 at Spiegelberg Stadium.

After a shotgun snap slipped through the hands and sailed over the head of quarterback Josh Robbins, he then dove after the ball and inadvertently knocked it toward North’s end zone. McNary linebacker Junior Walling then scooped up the ball at the 3-yard line and returned it for a touchdown, leading to a 26-14 halftime advantage.

“That was insane,” Walling said of North’s uber-aggressive strategy.

“That was huge,” he added. “Going into half up by 12 (instead of 19-14), that was awesome. It gave us good momentum in the second half.”

The Celtics (6-2), members of the Greater Valley Conference, opened up a 13-0 lead early in the second quarter, but the Black Tornado (2-6) rallied with back-to-back touchdowns — a 75-yard run by Eli Spence and a 1-yard run by Robbins — to take a lead on its home field for the first time this season.

McNary answered on the ensuing possession with the second of four touchdown passes by quarterback Erik Barker, this one an 11-yarder to Walling, to regain the lead for good.

But after North Medford’s Owen Grafton intercepted a pass by Barker — North’s second takeaway of the first half — with just 11 seconds remaining before halftime, the turnover-prone Tornado tempted fate, first with an attempted hook-and-ladder that nearly resulted in an interception, and then with the crushing fumble recovery that let the air out of the stadium moments before the homecoming ceremony started.

“Considering where we’ve been all year, I was real happy with the first half,” said North coach Mike Mitchell, also the team’s offensive coordinator. “I thought we were playing really well, until we dropped the snap. It’s like we’re snake-bit. That kind of took us out of it.”

“This is a nonconference game and we thought we really needed to play in it tonight,” he added. “I’m disappointed in how it ended up, and yet we had some guys who really played hard in the game.”

One of those guys was Spence, who caught a 20-yard touchdown pass from Robbins in the fourth quarter and provided several defensive highlights from his defensive tackle position, including a sack of Barker.

“I think most of us gave it our all,” said Spence, who rushed for a game-high 121 yards on 11 carries and caught two passes for 30 yards. “Yeah, it’s tough, you know — some of our guys’ last time out here on the field — but we win together and we lose together and we’re always going to be a family.”

“I think the whole time we stayed positive, no matter what, we just wanted to give it our all every single play,” he added, referring to the game-changing turnover on the final play of the first half.

On the opening possession of the second half, Spence carried the ball on nine straight plays and 11 of 12 total plays on a drive that covered 76 yards — aided by a pair of personal foul penalties against McNary — but stalled out at the McNary 9-yard line when the Celtics held on fourth down.

“It was a tough game,” Spence said. “They know how to hit and they’re aggressive guys. But I think we are, too. So, no matter what, it was gonna be a fistfight and that’s our type of game.”

McNary put the game out of reach with consecutive scoring drives late in the third quarter, capitalizing on a three-and-out by North and an interception by defensive back Jose Solorio.

The Tornado closes out its season next week at Willamette and hopes to seize a playoff spot by defeating the Wolverines to finish fourth in the Southwest Conference.

“We’ve got a definite chance for the No. 4 spot,” Mitchell said. “We’ve just got to go play Willamette like it’s a bowl game and that’s what it is.”

“We’ve kind of said all along, it’s been one of those deals, the fourth playoff spot is what our chances are for, just the way the season’s gone,” he added. “Willamette’s a team we have a chance to beat if we play well and don’t drop snaps and throw picks.”

Reach reporter Mike Oxendine at 541-776-4499 or moxendine@mailtribune.com