SOUTH CENTRE TWP. J.C. Keefer saw the Central Columbia defensive line shift, and there was nothing he could do about it. The Montoursville second-year head coach was out of timeouts with just 8 seconds left in the first half, and he knew the shift might cause problems for the Warriors offense.
Holding a four-point lead and with the ball at the Central Columbia 9-yard line, Keefer wanted to take one more shot at the end zone before kicking a field goal. But that shift Keefer saw was a wrench in the plan.
Blue Jays linebacker Eric McCracken came free and was in quarterback Aaron Cole's face as he released the ball on a fade route. The ball hung in the air long enough for Central's Adam Novak to make an interception. After quickly reading the situation, Novak raced down the right sideline 102 yards for a touchdown that changed the entire course of Friday's game.
Central Columbia took a halftime lead with the brilliant return, a lead it never gave up in a 27-17 win in an early-season thriller that could have major implications on both the Heartland-II and District 4 playoff races.
That interception to end the first half was one of five turnovers for a Montoursville offense which had nearly 100 more yards of offense than the Blue Jays in the first half, but still trailed by three points.
"We fumbled last week (in a win over Warrior Run) and I made it sound a little worse than what it was in the paper, but I wanted to make a point that it wasn't good enough," Keefer said. "We couldn't do that and beat a team like Central Columbia, and it was proven."
"That's the difference in the ball game," Central Columbia head coach Jason Hippenstiel said. "If we see them again, we can't count on five turnovers."
The one right before the half, though, that was the killer. It was a 10-point swing, at least, and any points for Montoursville would have been important since the Warriors were getting the football to start the second half.
Keefer had initially sent the field goal team on the field after Cole completed a 13-yard pass to Cam Ott to get the ball to the 9-yard line. Hippenstiel called a timeout with 8 seconds left, and when Keefer saw how much time he had with where the offense was on the field, he felt like he had one more opportunity to get a touchdown.
"I didn't realize we were inside the 10," Keefer said. "I wanted to throw a jump ball back to the back pylon there where it either goes out of bounds or our guy catches it."
With McCracken running free at Cole, Cole tried to release the ball early, though, giving Ott a chance to try and catch the ball. But with three defenders surrounding him, he never had a chance.
Novak jumped up to make the interception, and when he looked up field, he had a convoy of blockers leading him toward the end zone.
"I caught the ball and at first I was hesitant to run," Novak said. "Then I took off and I looked ahead and just had all my blockers in front of me. They had a lot of momentum coming into that, and we took the momentum into the half."
"It wasn't Aaron Cole's fault, it wasn't our line's fault for not picking it up," Keefer said. "They totally shifted and I didn't have any timeouts so we couldn't change anything. Our quarterback thought it he threw it far enough where he thought our guy could catch it, and it didn't happen."
"(Novak) surveyed the field and went. Almost everyone in the middle of the field stopped," Hippenstiel said. "And (Novak) is 4.5 or 4.6 (in the 40-yard dash) and that always helps."
It wasn't the only turnover the Blue Jays got last night, and the turnovers were killers for Montoursville. The Warriors were leading 10-0 in the second quarter and had an opportunity to push the lead to three scores with a drive which started at the Central Columbia 49.
On the first play Montoursville fumbled the football and Central Columbia recovered. With new life, the Blue Jays marched 46 yards in eight plays to get on the board with an Aaron Johnson 2-yard touchdown run to cut the deficit to 10-6.
"If they have another score there, it's tough to come back from that," said Novak, who also caught a 54-yard touchdown pass to go with his interception return.
After putting up more than 200 yards of offense in the first half, Montoursville was held to less than 100 in the second half, thanks in part to three second-half turnovers. Cole completed just 2 of 10 passes in the second half after completing 8 of 15 in the first half.
Central Columbia also began to control the clock in the second half by running the ball. The Blue Jays were expecting more blitzing in the first half from Montoursville and tried to throw the ball to catch them with it. But after Montoursville dropped back in coverage for much of the first half, Central went back to running the football.
Central gained 135 yards on the ground in the second half after gaining just 15 in the first half.
"Our defense played really well. It's just discipline problems with our contain with the quarterback getting outside the ends, and it shouldn't happen," Keefer said. "That's the only thing I'm upset about."
"We challenged guys up front," Hippenstiel said. "The O-line is playing better and we ran the ball when we had to, and that's what championship teams have to do."