“Defensive struggle” and “thrilling” are two terms that aren’t often used together to describe a football game.
Friday night’s non-league season-opener between Homer Central and Cortland High on Moiseichik Field lived up to both descriptions, however.
A last-second Purple Tiger field goal, coming after a pair of penalties took the hosts off the doorstep of the end zone, tied the game. Then a Trojan defensive stop in overtime and a key pass completion — one of only four for the visitors in the game — led to senior running back Kevin Bush bashing in from two yards out to give Homer the 9-3 victory.
“It was a little of both,” Trojans coach Gary Podsiedlik said when asked if his team’s fifth straight Home-Cort Jug victory was marked by ineffectual offense or strong defense. “Both defenses played well. We’re young, and we moved our senior tackle, Luke Sears, around a bit to keep them off-balance because they were going behind 77 (senior tackle Ray Rogers) to our lighter side.
“Turnovers were big in this game,” he added. “We didn’t have any. If we had, we wouldn’t have won. An interception led to our field goal. We call it sudden change, and the kids were chanting that after the interception.”
“These kids didn’t let up at all,” an obviously disappointed Cortland coach Pete Reif said of his team. “They kept fighting and continued to show their toughness. Homer didn’t do much offensively, and our offense would look like it was starting to go and then would make a mistake. The defense needed to play well, because it was behind the eight-ball a lot.”
The Trojans got their field goal in the first half, Bush connecting from 20 yards out as time expired to send his team into the break with a 3-0 lead. That possession was set up by senior defensive back Matt Guerrera’s interception of a pass from CHS senior quarterback Zach Travis at the Homer 32. He returned it to the Cortland 29 before going out of bounds, and a personal four on the hosts added 15 yards to the 14 with 26 seconds left until halftime.
After an incomplete pass, senior quarterback Jacob Rivers kept the ball and got to the four-yard line with six seconds left. An incomplete pass still left a second showing on the clock, and Bush split the uprights as the half ended.
“Guerrera did a nice job of getting out of bounds to save time,” Podsiedlik noted. “If he hadn’t, maybe we wouldn’t have gotten the opportunity for the field goal.”
HOMER HAD THE only other real scoring threat in the first half, as junior defensive back Dominick Natale recovered a fumble on the CHS 28 and the visitors subsequently got down to the nine before losing the ball on downs.
The defenses then dominated the second half.
Cortland forced Homer to punt on all five of its possessions prior to a regulation-ending kickoff that the Trojans fell on as time expired. Homer, meanwhile, forced two CHS punts and stopped the hosts twice on downs in the second half before the long sustained Cortland drive that led to senior Kiegan Brown’s game-tying 27-yard field goal with one second left in regulation.
It looked like the Purple Tigers were in position to win the game late. They got the ball on their own 45 with 5:43 left, and in 11 plays — eight of them quarterback keepers for a total of 20 yards — Travis led them down to the Homer one with 14 seconds left.
The final play that got them there saw senior wingback James Lane out-duel a defender for a 20-yard hookup with Travis, landing just short of the goal line.
Then came a bit of controversy.
An illegal procedure call on Cortland moved the ball back to the six, and with CHS not having any timeouts left the subsequent situational confusion resulted in a delay of game penalty that cost five more yards, back to the 11. After two incomplete passes into the end zone, Brown’s boot knotted the score.
The subsequent squib kick was downed by Homer to end regulation.
“THE KIDS PUT their hands on the ground on a first whistle, then there was a second one and almost our entire line stood up,” Reif said. “You can’t do that. They called illegal procedure on us, and we couldn’t get an explanation about the second whistle.
“But I don’t want to make excuses. Homer played well, and we did, too. Our defense played great, and didn’t give up many yards, especially in the second half. Our defensive coordinators, Dustin Bush and Max Benz, work long days and came up with a good game plan to shut down Homer. The only problems our defense had came when they were put in bad situations.”
“Pete and his staff are doing things the right way, and they prepared their kids well,” said Podsiedlik, who coached both Bush and Benz during their high school days. “They knew we were a power team and did a nice job of protecting their linebackers.”
Homer won the toss to start the overtime.and elected to go on defense first, Cortland with the ball starting 20 yards from the end zone. A four-yard gain by wingback Brown and four straight carries by Travis resulted in Cortland getting down to the six, where on third down Natale blew up a running play for an eight-yard loss. Brown was then just wide to the left on a 31-yard field goal attempt from a bad angle.
After an incomplete pass, Rivers connected with junior tight end Dante Yacavone on the left sideline, down to the CHS two. Bush scored amid a pile of players on the next play to end the game.
“THIS WAS THE first week we’d worked on that play, and we worked on it all week,” Yacavone said of the key completion. “I went out five yards, then left to the corner. It was a perfect pass by Jacob, and at first I thought I would get in.”
“I’d been overthrowing receivers all night,” Rivers said. “All the others were low line drives, so I put a little bit of air under it and got it up to Dante.”
“I didn’t want to go down,” Bush said of his game-winner. “I had teammates behind me pushing, and we were all able to push it enough.”
“I like that the kids were excited, and not negatively,” Podsiedlik said. “They were confident going into overtime, and handled it. The game was played clean, tough and hard; it’s a rivalry, but the kids like each other. We’re both fortunate that the two communities love it the way they do.”
“There are two ways to go with this,” Reif said. “We can be frustrated and blame the loss on one thing or another, or fight through it — which is what we’re going to do. I consider this an asterisk game. The kids are down a little bit, but it feels like we won this game.”
Cortland had 151 yards of offense in the contest to 128 for Homer. Travis ended up being the workhorse with 96 rushing yards on 26 carries and went 3-for-9 for 34 yards passing and the one interception. Running back John Horner III was the Trojans’ leading rusher with 34 yards on nine carries while Rivers completed 4-of-13 passes for 33 yards with no interceptions.
Both teams are home this Friday in 7 p.m. starts. Cortland hosts defending Section 3 Class A champion Whitesboro while Homer entertains Marcellus on Hall of Fame Night to open Class B West play.
Whitesboro beat Fulton 38-18 Friday night in a Class A non-leaguer while Marcellus, despite eight turnovers, gave B West rival Westhill all it could handle Thursday night in the Carrier Dome before falling, 34-28.