They don’t call them “special teams” for nothing.
Those who kick, punt, hold, return and block have the ability to change a football game on a dime. Sadly, for Randolph-Macon, that opportunity goes both ways, and it went in the worst way possible Saturday at the worst possible time.
The hopes of all Yellow Jacket fans were dashed as arch-rival Hampden-Sydney gleefully celebrated on Day Field with The Game Ball trophy – and an ODAC Championship – in a 28-26 nailbiter in the 119th meeting of the oldest small-school college football rivalry in the South.
“We didn’t make enough plays,” said Head Coach Pedro Arruza. “You’re talking about the missed field goals, the missed extra point. We work on that a lot. Super disappointing.”
In this case, it wasn’t just one kicker having an off day. After an offensive onslaught by both teams in the game’s first 17 minutes, Randolph-Macon had their first chance to take the lead when, after a 66-yard touchdown run by Will McGhee tied the score at 14-14, Hampden-Sydney fumbled the ensuing kickoff return, and the Jackets pounced on it. Adding a personal foul penalty gave the Jackets the ball at the Tigers’ 17.
The drive stalled at the 12. Freshman kicker Colin McFadden (Manchester) attempted a 29-yard field goal that was blocked, keeping the game tied. One possession later, the Jackets did pull out in front when Zac Naccarato found Greg Petrohovich down the near sideline for a 46-yard touchdown reception. But Clint Herrmann missed the extra point, opening the door for the Tigers at just 20-14.
They stormed through it, traveling down the field in five plays, connecting on a Nash Nance to Holton Walker 24-yard touchdown throw to retake the lead at 21-20. The Tigers nearly extended the lead before halftime, but on a second and goal at the Jackets’ 8-yard line, Nance’s pass was tipped and intercepted by Deshaun Rogers (Lee-Davis) in the end zone.
The Jackets set out to retake the lead to open the third quarter, but their mission was short-lived as Naccarato, for the second time in the game, didn’t see the Tiger defense read his short passing game. The result was a midfield interception courtesy of Hanover graduate Shreve Rohle, who stepped in front of the intended receiver. But, two plays later, Hampden-Sydney returned the favor, as Walker fumbled the ball after a 23-yard completion and Rogers pounced on the pigskin at his own 23 to end the Tiger threat and keep it a one-point game.
In a sign that faith in the kicking game was shaky at best, when the Jackets found themselves on the 12th play of their next drive, facing fourth and 5 at the Sydney 27, they left the offense on the field. Naccarato’s pass attempt to Mike Doe fell incomplete and a seven-minute drive yielded no points.
Advancing to the Tigers’ 13 on the next drive, Seth Yurgel went in for a 30-yard field goal try, and missed. It was now seven lost points in the kicking game with a quarter to play.
Hampden-Sydney’s only second half points came at a most critical time, a 10-play 73-yard drive ended on a Nance 1-yard run. A critical pass interference call on Randolph-Macon on a third and nine at the 16 yard line gave the Tigers first and goal at the one, leading to Nance’s plunge. The point after made it 28-20. Randolph-Macon took over at their own 38 with 7:31 to play, and Arruza knew this probably would be their final shot at, now, tying the game and forcing overtime.
McGhee’s number was called eight times in 12 plays over six minutes. With two minutes left, they reached the Tigers’ 2. A rush for no gain by John Byrd led to a timeout. Back came McGhee in the heavy set backfield, finding a seam right side to cross the plane and cut the Tigers lead to 28-26. With 1:35 to go, the Jackets were forced to go for two.
Their attempt, a statue of liberty-type running play to McGhee, was snuffed out by the Tigers defense, but Hampden-Sydney was called for a face mask penalty. Suddenly, the Jackets had new life, and the ball was only 1 1/4 yards from the end zone rather than 2 1/2 after the penalty mark-off. Decision time.
“We called the same play where we had gotten in before [the McGhee touchdown], and I felt like, hey, this is what we do, this is what we’re good at, let’s do it,” Arruza explained. “Am I second-guessing it? For sure. Anytime you don’t make a play, you’re going to second-guess it.”
In the heavy set, McGhee looked for a seam that never materialized. Personnel changes by the Tigers led to better penetration at the line, and the Jackets were stopped short.
An onside kick attempt failed and the Tigers went to run out the clock, but after their fourth down kneel by Nance, they inexplicably left two seconds on the clock. Time for one Hail Mary for the Jackets from midfield, but the pass attempt was well short of the end zone and knocked down. The Tigers survived, the Farmville faithful stormed the field, and the mood of the home crowd became as gloomy as the dark afternoon sky.
McGhee became Randolph-Macon’s all-time single season rushing leader with a 198-yard performance in his final game as a Jacket, finishing with 1,676 yards. Naccarato’s final game under center wasn’t his finest hour, going 9-of-16 for 114 yards, one touchdown and two poorly thrown interceptions.
Hanover natives Rohle and Josh Doggett (Atlee) had stellar defensive games for the Tigers, Rohle with six tackles to go with his second half interception, while Doggett had 14 tackles, five of them solo.
Randolph-Macon finishes 2013 at 7-3, stymied by missed opportunities in their quest to claim the ODAC crown for the first time since 2008. Upon reflection, Arruza didn’t allow the defeat to dismiss the quality of character found on Team 126.
“We played well enough on defense to win the game. We didn’t play well enough on offense to win. But, we played hard on both sides of the ball,” he said. “This is as great a group of kids as I’ve ever had. I’m disappointed for myself, but way more so for them and especially for the seniors. This is as tough a loss as we’ve ever had.”