Two touchdowns in seven-second span late in first half change game's complexion
DUBLIN — Two touchdowns in a seven-second span during the final minute of the first half created a wave of momentum that capsized the No. 3 May Tigers, as the No. 6 Jonesboro Eagles captured the Class A Division I Region III championship, 57-50, Friday night.
May (12-1), seeking its first trip to state since back-to-back appearances in 2013 and 2014, jumped out to a 20-0 lead, but Jonesboro (12-1) trimmed the deficit to six points just prior to halftime and continued to control the contest into the second half.
With the Tigers in front 26-6 following a 10-yard touchdown toss from Wyatt Mote to Austin McAbee with 1:51 left in the first half, the Eagles capped a five-play, 50-yard trek with an 18-yard scoring pass from Ethan Lilljedahl to Alex Sarmiento with 58 seconds remaining in the second period, cutting May's lead to 26-12.
On the ensuing kickoff, Jonesboro placed the ball in no man's land at the May 15, where the Eagles' Wyatt Young dove on the loose ball before a Tiger could pick it up. On the very next play, Lilljedahl again connected with Sarmiento from 15 yards out, and Jonesboro was within 26-20 with 51 seconds to go before the break.
“It was just a mental lapse,” said May 14th-year head coach Craig Steele. “We had two kids in the same area, one thought the other one was going to get on it and the other thought the same way, and neither one of them got on it. It definitely hurt us.”
The Tigers had a chance to score before the break and quash Jonesboro's surge, but a potential 57-yard touchdown pass from Mote to Gage Keckler short-hopped the intended receiver, and May had to settle for a 26-20 halftime advantage.
Jonesboro — which didn't manage a point until the 4:50 mark of the second period — got the ball to start the second half and quickly marched 43 yards in three plays, with Lilljedahl scoring on a 30-yard run to knot the score at 26 just 1:15 into the second half.
May's first drive of the second half featured another missed opportunity as Preston Johnston was unable to corral what would have been a 35-yard touchdown toss from Mote on third-and-21, and the Tigers eventually gave the ball over on downs.
Jonesboro then journeyed 45 yards in eight plays, with Lilljedahl again finding Sarmiento for a 14-yard touchdown pass on fourth-and-8, despite the ball being snapped over the Eagles' heads, as May fell behind for the first time, 33-26, with 4:04 left in the third period.
“Jonesboro made a few adjustments to what we were doing defensively, and that's a credit to them, they have a good coaching staff over there,” Steele said. “They just rededicated themselves to blocking, and we missed a tackle here and there and it snowballed on us.”
May apparently stopped the bleeding and regained a 34-33 edge with 3:41 remaining in the third as Mote — who completed 27 of 41 passes for 448 yards with six touchdowns — hooked up with Dalton Self on a 53-yard scoring toss, while Dakotah Wilkinson booted the go-ahead two-point kick.
The Eagles fired back with the next two touchdowns as Lilljedahl — who finished with a game-high 146 rushing yards despite not gaining a yard in the first half — scored on carries of 2 and 65 yards to give Jonesboro a 49-34 advantage with 6:21 to go. May also lost one of its primary weapons at this point as Johnston was ejected for a targeting call on an extra point following the Eagles' second touchdown.
In between the Jonesboro scores, May advanced to the Eagle 10 where the Tigers were unable to convert on a fourth-and-5 play. It marked the second time the Tigers failed to score from inside the 10, as Mote was picked off on fourth-and-goal from the 5 late in the first period with May in control, 12-0, at that point.
Down 15, the Tigers refused to give in as a seven-play, 60-yard drive ended with a 12-yard touchdown pass from Mote to Tyler Wheeler, which trimmed Jonesboro's lead to 49-42 with 4:05 remaining after the Wilkinson kick.
Jonesboro moved 47 yards in four plays on its next possession, with Lilljedahl inflicting the most damage on a 39-yard touchdown run that put May in a 57-42 hole with 2:04 left.
Facing a fourth-and-16 from its own 11 with just over a minute left, Mote threw a fly pattern that Keckler hauled in for a 69-yard touchdown, and Wilkinson's kick kept the Tigers alive, down 57-50 with 58 seconds left.
The ensuing onside kick was recovered by Jonesboro's Sarmiento — who also finished with five receptions for 72 yards — which allowed the Eagles to run out the clock.
“There's no quit in them,” Steele said of the Tigers and their attempt to rally. “The kids busted their tails and did that all year. It's a fantastic senior group. They were freshmen the last time we went to state and they were certainly hoping we could get back there. They're a great group of kids, a great group to work with, and we're going to miss them.”
May finished with 20 first downs and 585 yards of total offense — 452 passing and 133 rushing — but lost a pair of turnovers and committed eight penalties for 65 yards. Jonesboro, meanwhile, tallied 16 first downs and 412 yards, with 317 coming on the ground, but was turnover-free and flagged only once for 5 yards.
“We got behind the chains several times and really we weren't able to run the ball the way we hoped we'd be able to,” Steele said. “I knew we were going to have to mix it up, but we weren't able to mix it up as much as I'd like. We had to be a lot more spread and that just wore on us as the night went on.”
Mote completed passes to six different receivers, led by Johnston with eight grabs for 56 yards, Self with seven receptions for 154 yards, Keckler with five catches for 111 yards, McAbee with five receptions for 86 yards, Daniel Salinas with two catches totaling 33 yards and Wheeler's 12-yard scoring reception.
Mote also led all May rushers with 77 yards on nine carries, trailed by 29 yards from Self, 23 from Johnston and 4 from McAbee.
For Jonesboro, Young chipped in 139 yards in the backfield to complement Lilljedahl, who also completed 4 of 6 passes for 67 yards and three scores. Young was 2 of 2 for 22 yards passing, while Anthony Lopez also completed a 6-yard pass. Andy Sarmiento tacked on 31 yards rushing to Jonesboro's team total of 317 yards on the ground, as the Eagles rushed for 211 yards in the second half alone.
Friday's contest couldn't have started much better for May, which scored two plays after receiving the opening kick. Following a 39-yard pass from Mote to Self, McAbee scored on a 4-yard run for a 6-0 lead just 26 seconds into the contest.
Jonesboro went four-and-out on its first drive, and May answered with an eight-play, 48-yard march that culminated with a 7-yard scoring toss from Mote to Keckler, putting the Tigers up 12-0 with 5:01 to go in the first.
May's third possession ended with a turnover, but the Tiger defense again shut down Jonesboro, allowing just the Eagles' first first down of the contest before taking over at their own 35 on the second play of the second period. Six plays later, Mote and Self again hooked up for a 28-yard touchdown, and the Tigers were seemingly in control, 20-0, with 7:37 left in the half.
Jonesboro produced its first touchdown at the 4:50 mark of the second period as Young scored on a 14-yard run, but May immediately answered with an eight-play, 50-yard drive that put the Tigers back up by 20 points.
Reigning state finalist Jonesboro will face Tioga (12-1) — a 44-40 winner over Union Hill Friday night — next weekend for the right to advance to the Class A Division I state championship game at AT&T Stadium in Arlington on Dec. 20.