Off to the Metrodome
LUVERNE -- Trailing 27-19 with 1:34 left in the fourth quarter Saturday against Winona Cotter, the Luverne Cardinals rallied to tie the game in the final moments of regulation.
But they weren't done yet.
Derek Elbers capped off Luverne's comeback with an overtime touchdown to give the Cardinals a thrilling 33-27 victory in the quarterfinal round of the Class AA state football tournament.
"Except for a few big passing plays by Winona Cotter, I thought we controlled the game for the most part," Luverne head coach Todd Oye said. "We played hard the whole game, and found a way to come back and win in the final moments."
Luverne (9-3) advances to play the 11-1 Moose Lake/Willow River Rebels -- who were 16-6 winners over defending state champion Eden Valley-Watkins -- in the state semifinals Friday night at the Metrodome in Minneapolis. Game time is approximately 5:45 p.m.
Already leading 20-19 with the ball deep in their own territory midway through the fourth quarter, the Ramblers converted on three crucial pass plays -- two coming on third down -- to maintain possession and march down the field.
First, Thomas O'Brien (17-for-31 passing, 281 yards) found Sam Blank (seven catches, 64 yards) for a 10-yard gain on second down to move the ball to Cotter's 23-yard line with 4:36 left.
Then, on third-and-five from the 28, that same duo hooked up for a seven-yard completion with 3:22 left.
After two short runs brought up another third-and-five play from the 40-yard line, the Ramblers came up with what looked like the game-clinching play.
O'Brien found Andrew Klinkner down the right sideline for a 49-yard gain, moving the ball to Luverne's 11-yard line with 1:58 remaining.
A four-yard run by Jake Wanek marked the ball at the seven before Luverne called its final timeout with 1:38 left.
Instead of possibly taking a couple of kneel-downs to run the clock out, the Ramblers elected to go for the knockout punch, as Wanek found room on the right side and raced in for a touchdown with 1:34 showing on the clock. David Leaf booted the PAT, and the Ramblers led 27-19.
"We decided to just let them score on that play," Oye said. "That was the only chance we had at getting the ball back."
After the ensuing kickoff, Luverne took possession at its own 34-yard line with 1:29 left to play, needing to go 66 yards in 89 seconds.
On third-and-seven, Jeremy Hoff (8-for-17 passing, 129 yards; 14 rushes, 64 yards) found Derek Boeve over the middle for a 24-yard gain, moving the ball to Cotter's 39-yard line with 53 seconds left.
After an incompletion, Hoff connected with Weston Sawtelle -- who busted several tackles and hustled to get out-of-bounds with 38 seconds left -- for another 24-yard gain.
With the ball at the 15-yard line, Hoff looked for Boeve in the back of the end zone. Boeve made a diving catch, but his momentum took him out of the end zone for an incompletion.
On the following play, Hoff scrambled to his left before firing a pass to Jake Clark in the end zone. Clark made the catch and with 26 seconds left, Luverne was down 27-25.
"Jake had an outstanding game with two touchdowns and three interceptions," Oye said. "He was covering one of the best receivers (Leaf) we've seen all year, and he made big plays throughout the game."
Needing the two-point conversion, Luverne went to Elbers, who rumbled his way in to tie the game at 27-all.
The Ramblers didn't take any chances on its ensuing possession, as they just ran the ball once and prepared for overtime.
Luverne received the ball first and gave it to Elbers on all three plays -- the final one a 5-yard touchdown burst up the middle. Chris Engesser's PAT kick hit the crossbar, but Luverne had a 33-27 lead and needed its defense to come through.
Cotter stuck with its passing game -- its most effective weapon all game long -- on its possession, but an incompletion and a fumbled snap moved the ball to the 13-yard line, bringing up third down.
O'Brien then looked for Blank and Leaf on the next two plays, but both pass attempts were unsuccessful -- Hoff intercepted the final one -- and Luverne escaped with the victory.
"We went and scored right away in the overtime, and our defense made it hold up," Oye said. "It was a gutsy effort by our kids."
The game couldn't have started any better for the Cardinals, as they jumped out to a quick 13-0 lead midway through the opening quarter.
It all started on the opening kickoff, as Wanek dropped the kick and Luverne's Sam Dooyema recovered the ball at Cotter's 29-yard line.
After three rushes moved the ball to the 19, Elbers (27 rushes, 116 yards) busted around the left end for a 15-yard run, marking the ball at the 4.
After Mitch Bauman was stopped for no gain, Hoff kept the ball and plowed his way up the middle and into the end zone with 9:32 remaining in the opening period. Engesser kicked the PAT, and Luverne led 7-0.
Luverne then forced the Ramblers to punt on the ensuing possession, and Dooyema snuck through and blocked Blank's kick. Dooyema scooped the ball up at Cotter's 23-yard line, and the Cardinals were back in business.
Five plays later, Elbers -- running behind a big block by Aaron Altman on a sweep to the right -- dashed in for an 11-yard touchdown. The Ramblers blocked Engesser's PAT kick, but Luverne was up 13-0 with 5:42 left in the first quarter.
"We had all of the momentum to start the game, as our special teams made plays, and our offense went down and scored twice right away," Oye said. "We then forced them to punt, but they faked it and got a pass interference call out of it."
The fake punt and pass interference call (on fourth-and-five from their own 35-yard line) led to a razzle-dazzle pass play -- a double reverse flea-flicker -- by the Ramblers, getting them on the scoreboard and swinging the momentum to their side.
The result of the play was a 50-yard touchdown pass from O'Brien to Leaf (six catches, 160 yards) with 4:02 left in the first quarter. Leaf kicked the PAT, and the Ramblers were down 13-7.
Cotter took the lead with 2:10 left in the second quarter, as O'Brien and Leaf hooked up for a 33-yard touchdown. Leaf again kicked the PAT, giving the Ramblers a 14-13 edge.
However, Luverne responded by driving 84 yards on six plays to regain the lead with 44 seconds to go before halftime.
Hoff found Clark (three catches, 67 yards) for a 40-yard touchdown strike to cap the drive and put the Cardinals up 19-14. Elbers was stopped shy of the end zone on the two-point attempt, and Luverne led by five at the intermission.
Two of Clark's interceptions came on back-to-back Cotter possessions early in the third quarter (his other one came late in the first quarter), but Luverne couldn't move the ball after either turnover.
Luverne maintained its five-point lead until the 9:19 mark in the fourth quarter. That's when the Ramblers capped a textbookdrive (80 yards on 16 plays lasting 6:32) with a 13-yard touchdown pass from O'Brien to Blank. The two-point attempt failed, and Cotter had its 20-19 lead.
Luverne was driving on the ensuing possession, but had to punt from Cotter's 41-yard line with 5:35 left in regulation. Andrew DeBoer's punt pinned the Ramblers at their own 13, setting up the final two drives of the game and the overtime period.
Winona Cotter 7 7 0 13 0 -- 27
Luverne 13 6 0 8 6 -- 33