TRI CITY — When it was time to decide in the final minute Saturday afternoon, South Umpqua football coach Steve Stebbins had no trouble going for the win.
“We were fatigued going into the middle of the third quarter and to the end of the game,” Stebbins said. “The thing then is, once you’re fatigued then you start to see the mental mistakes, too, and that’s what happened to us.
“That’s why I went for two at the end. We can’t play overtime, we’re beat, we’re done physically. We’re exhausted, so let’s just try and get this over with right now.”
Trailing Phoenix 28-27 with 31.9 seconds left after Taylor Gross scored on a 27-yard reverse left, the Lancers came back with a similar play, flooding the end zone with receivers. Gross sold the reverse, then stopped and lofted a pass to Parker Patterson at the back line.
Patterson caught the ball, but was ruled out of bounds and the Pirates held on for the one-point victory.
“It was a great play call,” said Gross, who also caught a scoring pass in the game. “We ran sweep a couple of times and all those guys would roll up.”
“He said we’re going for two and I thought we had it,” said Johnathan Warner. “We did have it, but we were out by inches, just inches. We were there and we even got the onside kick right afterward, but then we had the two penalties and that was big.”
Also important was the Lancers’ lack of depth. S.U. had less than 50 athletes turn out for football this year. Last season, there were eight, sometimes nine, players available to fill spots on the front line.
This season, Justin Thompson has been playing tackle instead of tight end, though he swapped jerseys and played a huge role in S.U.’s final scoring drive.
Before the season started Stebbins voiced concerns about the lack of numbers, and on Saturday against a playoff-caliber Phoenix team those concerns proved true.
The Lancers (1-2) played well in the first half, built a 14-0 lead on the execution and determination of running back Connor Yates, Warner, Gross and quarterback William Wylie.
Phoenix helped out with multiple penalties and failed execution. But the Pirates righted their ship in the second half behind senior quarterback Javan Gail, a transfer from North Medford.
Gail threw for three touchdowns and ran for a fourth, leading the Pirates (2-1) to four scores against a tiring Lancers defense.
Phoenix tied the game at 21 with 9:14 remaining on Gail’s 7-yard pass to Chase Courtney. The Pirates took the lead on Gail’s 31-yard pass to Courtney with 6:53 left.
Between those scores, the Lancers struggled to move the ball. Indeed, for most of the second half, their offense was unimpressive and uninspired.
“The whole second half, we couldn’t do anything offensively,” said Stebbins. “We couldn’t run the ball, we couldn’t throw the ball.”
Defensively, the Lancers were flagging as well.
“There was a lot of fatigue on the field,” said Warner, who returned a kickoff 87 yards for a score in the third quarter. “That’s why there were some mistakes on the field that cost us big.”
Trailing for the first time — S.U. scored on its opening drive of the game — and backed up to their own 5, the Lancers resorted to the kind of trick plays Stebbins prefers to avoid using before league play begins.
“I didn’t want to use any of those,” said Stebbins. “We had to do something to see if we could get a spark and that’s what we did.”
It started with a double pass from Wylie to Thompson in the slot from a three-receiver left formation. Gross came across the field, outjumped Gail for the high pass, and S.U. was in business at midfield. The subsequent reverse by Gross drew the Lancers within a point and there was no debate about the two-point attempt.
Having used those gadget plays, Stebbins and the Lancers will begin working on some fresh plays to torment future opponents. S.U. opens Far West League play next Friday at Marshfield (3-0).
“It really teaches how to play in a close game,” Gross said. “Hopefully they do well in their season — they should, they’re a good team. I hope they win out, it’ll help us in the power rankings.”
Phoenix 0 0 14 14 — 28
S. Umpqua 7 7 7 6 — 27
SU — Yates 4 run (Pires kick), 8:48
SU — Gross 15 pass from Wylie (Pires kick), 0:20.3
P — Halligan 3 pass from Gail (Espana kick), 7:01
SU — Warner 87 kickoff return (Pires kick), 6:47
P — Gail 7 run (Espana kick), 0:43.4
P — Courtney 7 pass from Gail (Espana kick), 9:14
P — Courtney 31 pass from Gail (Espana kick), 6:53
SU — Gross 27 run (pass failed), 31.9