TOWN OF CHENANGO – To live up to the billing, it probably would have needed three overtimes with a circus catch in the back of the end zone to end it.
That didn’t happen, but make no mistake, it was entertaining high school football staged Saturday.
Senior quarterback Kyle Balmer scored three touchdowns and Maine-Endwell narrowly held off a fourth-quarter rally by Chenango Forks in a 28-21 Section 4 Football Conference non-division victory.
Played before a large turnout in a misty rain, Section 4’s alpha dogs went nose-to-nose for 47 tense minutes before Balmer took to his knee twice to burn off the final minute or so of game clock.
At times in the second and third quarters, it looked as if the 2-0 Spartans might ease away to their 53rd straight victory, but the Blue Devils would have none of it. Twice, Forks (1-1) had possession in the fourth quarter down by seven but couldn’t crack a sound Spartans’ defensive unit.
Though the drama from squads who’ve combined for six state titles over the past four seasons came in the fourth quarter, M-E’s dominant first half likely was the difference.
“We definitely controlled the ball, we controlled the whole game, but that’s Forks,” said M-E coach Matt Gallagher, the architect of a program that was won four straight state championships and has a state-record 53-game winning streak. “They came back. They’re not going to give up.”
Right after Forks missed a 29-yard field goal to end its opening drive, the Spartans methodically scored touchdowns on their next two drives, the first covering 80 yards and the second 72. It took a combined 30 plays on those drives, both of which ended with Balmer scoring runs.
That 14-0 halftime lead turned out to be mighty big.
The first, a 16-play march, bridged the first and second quarters. The Spartans converted on two fourth downs, the first a 3-yard run by fullback Cordell Woolfolk on a fourth-and-1, and the second, a 12-yard completion from Balmer to Michael Palmer along the right sideline on fourth-and-12. That completion gave M-E possession at the Blue Devils’ 20, and one play later, Balmer scored from 16 yards on an option keeper to the right side, breaking a tackle at the 3 and diving into the end zone. The first of four Alec Greene extra points made it 7-0 10:22 before halftime.
After a three-and-out Forks series, M-E took over at its 28. Fourteen plays later, Balmer scored from 10 yards and M-E had a 14-point advantage. The Spartans converted another fourth down on the drive and received a 27-yard gain by John Cerra, who came in motion left to start, received a pitch from Balmer and ran around the left end to the Blue Devils’ 8.
On third-and-goal from the 10, Balmer again scored on a keeper to the right side, this time dragging two Forks defenders into the end zone.
Balmer had 61 rushing yards at halftime, the one player for whom Forks defenders couldn’t account.
“Obviously, running the option is tough to defend and when the line blocks it like they did, it’s hard to stop,” said Balmer, who finished with 78 rushing yards. “Keeping the football is important in a game like this.”
Forks’ chances took a seemingly devastating blow on the third play from scrimmage in the second half. The Blue Devils lined up three receivers to the left side and quarterback L.J. Watson threw into the left flat. Palmer cut in front of a Forks receiver, made an interception and raced 42 yards untouched into the end zone as M-E’s lead ballooned to 21-0 with 10:42 left in the third quarter.
“I’m playing my assignment,” Palmer said. “I have the flats. I saw him go out to the flats, so I made a break and as I made the break, L.J. was throwing the ball and good things happened.”
To that point, Forks’ offense had mustered 46 yards.
That was about to change and Watson played a starring role. All the junior did on this day was play quarterback, carried the ball 22 times, punted twice and made several big hits and the defensive side of the ball.
A 57-yard touchdown drive that consisted of nine running plays brought the Blue Devils to 21-7. Watson scrambled right for a 26-yard gain to M-E’s 26 and he capped the drive with an impressive 14-yard touchdown run on fourth-and-8. He scrambled on left this one, made an ankle-breaking cut to his right around the 10 to elude a defender and then cruised into the end zone. Tony Silvanic provided the first of his three PATs to make it a 14-game with 5:04 left in the third quarter.
But M-E came right back, driving 69 yards in seven plays. Cerra, who finished with 92 rushing yards on eight carries, broke off gains of 17 and 21 yards before Balmer capped it with a 7-yard run. Balmer faked to Woolfolk inside before finding a crease on the left side and scored standing up with 2:48 left in the third to make it 28-7.
The Blue Devils’ comeback started in earnest early in the third quarter. Cerra carried to the left side before Cody Lamont ripped the ball from his grasp and raced 27 yards for a touchdown as the Blue Devils pulled to 28-14, with 10:51 showing on the clock.
“I think that was definitely what changed things,” Forks coach David Hogan said of Lamond’s big play.
A three-and-out series ensued for Forks and it set up for its next possession at M-E’s 41 after a 27-yard punt return by Watson.
When Tim McDonald took a handoff on a trap for a 30-yard gain, the Blue Devils had a first-and-goal at the 6. Two plays later, Watson faked a dive handoff before heading off the left side for a 5-yard scoring run and the deficit was 28-21, with 5:52 to go.
More good fortune came Forks’ way when Balmer couldn’t handle the ensuing snap from scrimmage and Jake Osterhout recovered at M-E’s 34.
But two runs by McDonald produced 3 yards, Watson recovered a botched snap for a 1-yard loss on third down and Balmer tackled Watson after a 4-yard gain to give the ball back to M-E with 3:35 left.
“I felt like the second-to-last drive we had, we’ve got to be able to punch that in, but they stepped up, so hat’s off to them,” said Hogan, who’s squad is aiming for a third straight Class C state title this season.
Three M-E plays produced 3 yards, forcing a punt by Balmer. It was a beauty, a 44-yarder that forced Lamont to make an over-the-shoulder catch, which took his momentum back 4 more yards, where he was tackled at the 20.
“That put them in a situation where they had to do some things they may have wanted to,” Gallagher said. “It’s nice to have a foot like that.”
Forks couldn’t get anything going on its last possession and turned the ball over on downs with about a minute left.
“You can’t ask for anything better,” Palmer said. “You’ve got your fans over their cheering hearts out and then on the other side you have the opponents booing you. It doesn’t get better than that, especially to play a classy team like that. It was a great high school football game.”
On Twitter: @PSBRob