This time, it's the Irish
Considering how last year’s football game against North Medford played out, Sheldon head coach Lane Johnson wasn’t about to count out the Black Tornado until the final horn Friday night at Spiegelberg Stadium.
On that very same field last year, North Medford dialed up a 64-yard touchdown pass with 41 seconds to play to upset Johnson’s squad en route to the Southwest Conference championship.
This year, however, the fifth-ranked Irish survived another frantic finish after staving off a last-minute drive by No. 6 North Medford thanks to an interception at the Sheldon 15-yard line by senior Logan Comer that sealed a 21-14 victory.
“Especially how it ended last year, it was sweet,” said Johnson. “As they’re going in to look like maybe they’d tie it up or go ahead if they went for two points, to come up with the big defensive play was awesome.”
It was the second clutch defensive play of the fourth quarter for Sheldon (8-1, 6-1 SWC), which finished runner-up to undefeated Grants Pass in the final conference standings.
“We played as good of defense as we’ve played in a long time,” added Johnson.
With just under 10 minutes left in the contest, North Medford’s Nick Janakes appeared destined for a touchdown when he was stripped of the ball at the 3-yard line and Sheldon pounced on it for another critical turnover.
“They’re a good football team but I thought we played pretty well tonight, too,” said North Medford head coach Mike Mitchell. “We had the 21 (points) on the board but we fumbled it on the 3-yard line. That was a close game and whoever made mistakes was going to decide it, and we fumbled the ball and that was a mistake that cost us.”
Neither team managed to cross into the end zone in the first half, with Comer blocking a 21-yard field goal attempt by Isaac Grether to deny North Medford’s opening drive and Kellen Strahm’s 37-yard field goal attempt to end the half pulled left.
The wheels finally began to click for both teams in the third quarter.
“We made some good offensive adjustments at halftime, as did they,” said Johnson. “We knew they were going to come out and probably get a score or two, but what a great game.”
North Medford (7-2, 5-2) used a pair of big gains by Janakes and a 19-yard connection from Troy Fowler to Jacob Moore to set up the game’s first score, with Fowler diving in from the 1 for a 6-0 lead when the point-after attempt failed.
Sheldon, as it did all night, answered using the playmaking powers of Strahm, who finished with 201 yards rushing on 28 carries and 98 yards passing (9-for-16 with one interception).
The 6-0, 184-pound Strahm drew in the defense before dumping a pass off to Comer for a pivotal 30-yard gain on third-and-12 at the Black Tornado 44. Strahm then scrambled up the middle for the equalizing touchdown and followed with the extra-point kick for a 7-6 advantage.
Four minutes later, Strahm added a 44-yard TD run on a keeper up the middle, shedding the grasping attempt of linebacker Edmund Polataivao on his jersey to eventually pull away into the end zone for a 14-6 lead.
“He’s been doing it ever since he took over at quarterback,” Johnson said of the converted wide receiver. “We kind of made the decision that it’d be nice to have him touch the ball 60 times a game instead of 10.”
Undaunted, North Medford answered 74 seconds later with a big run of its own from Fowler, who tucked the ball and got a nice clearing block from Jared Evans for a 64-yard scamper to the Sheldon 4-yard line. On the next play, Fowler hit Josh Hansen on a quick slant for a touchdown. Fowler then created enough time on the two-point conversion to allow Tristen Holmes to break free for an easy catch and a 14-all deadlock with 1:58 to go in the third quarter.
Strahm and Comer, who finished with 108 yards on 19 carries, fed off one another on the ensuing drive. After Strahm carved through the defense for a 13-yard gain on third-and-12 at the Black Tornado 43, Comer took advantage of some missed tackles on a winding path to the end zone for a 30-yard go-ahead score with 11:23 to play.
When Fowler found Holmes for a 15-yard gain and Janakes for a 13-yard gain, all evidence was that North Medford was bound for another tying effort until the Irish found some good fortune. On third-and-eight from the Sheldon 25, Fowler patiently waited for Janakes to get clear in the middle of the field and he cut up quickly toward the end zone before Strahm punched the ball free.
Adding to the North Medford misery, Janakes injured his ankle on the play after a misstep while reaching back for the loose ball as his momentum carried him into the end zone. Janakes, who led his team in tackles on Friday, finished with 106 yards rushing on 18 carries to go with 67 yards on five receptions.
“Those were points you don’t like to see not get up on the scoreboard because we were right there,” said Mitchell.
The teams traded punts before North Medford held on downs to take over at its own 25-yard line with 1:01 remaining. Fowler quickly marched his team to the Irish 27 before miscommunication on a third-down pass led to Comer’s game-clinching interception.
“I thought Troy was going to get it done at the end there,” said Mitchell. “He threw a pick but I don’t want him to wear the weight of the world on that. The bottom line is that was good playoff experience for us right there. That’s what it’s going to be like if you want to go all the way, and I just told them I think they’ve showed me we can play with anybody.”
Fowler completed 17 of 24 passes for 194 yards, one touchdown and one interception, while Holmes finished with five catches for 65 yards.
“It was two really good teams out there on the field and whoever was going to make a play at the end was going to win the game, and obviously they did,” said Fowler.
NM – Fowler 1 run (pass failed)
S – Strahm 14 run (Strahm kick)
S – Strahm 44 run (Strahm kick)
NM – Hansen 4 pass from Fowler (Holmes pass from Fowler)
S – Comer 30 run (Strahm kick)
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry