As one of the fiercest rivalries in the area, Triad and Highland have played many classics on the football field. But last week’s installment easily will go down as one of the best matchups in the storied history of the Route 40 rivalries.
Before the game ever kicked off, the stage was already set for a game to be remembered. The stakes were high as the winner would advance to the Mississippi Valley Conference Bowl Championship. The two teams had also faced off earlier in the season where Triad claimed a 28-14 victory.
Triad’s Head Coach Paul Bassler explained after the game that even for two schools as close as Triad and Highland, a rematch is rare to see, “This is only the third time we have played them twice in one year. Once was in 1997 when they beat us twice. The other was in 2008 when we beat them in the regular season and they got us back in the playoffs off a last second score.”
With their undefeated record on the line, the Knights received the opening kickoff. They wouldn’t have the ball for long however as they fumbled deep in their own territory and Vance Brindley of Highland recovered. Highland marched down the field until they were faced with a fourth and goal from the one yard line where running back Logan Chandler punched the ball in.
With a 7-0 lead in their hands, the Bulldogs stayed aggressive and went for a surprise onside kick but failed to recover. Triad quickly went deep into Highland territory as quarterback Devin Wilkins found an open Roger Wolf to go to the 24 yard line.
Shortly after, the team was faced with a fourth and seven they elected to go for. Wilkins found a wide open Geno Riggar on the play for a first down, but the back judge ruled the ball had hit the ground before the catch was completed.
After forcing a quick punt on defense, Triad had great starting position at their opponent’s 47 yard line. The drive looked fizzled out as it stretched into the second quarter and the team faced a third and long, but then Wilkins found an open Sam Yager deep. Despite being grabbed by the cornerback with the ball in the air, Yager caught the ball and put the Knights at Highland’s six yard line.
Wilkins dashed into the end zone on third down, but a holding call negated the play and forced a third and goal from the twelve yard line. On the next play, Gabe Marti intercepted the ball and gave the visitors the ball back. Highland put together their best drive of the day and marched all the way down the field and Chandler scored another touchdown from 23 yards out.
Down 14-0, Triad started at their own 48 yard line for the ensuing drive. Several big plays including a pass to Andrew Gula helped the Knights march well into field goal range at the fifteen yard line. When they attempted the field goal, Highland blocked it and Liam Gallagher returned it 72 yards for a touchdown.
Knowing they needed a score, Triad pieced together a long drive to Highland’s four yard line that featured a fourth and seven picked up on the ground by Yager. Shortly after on third down, Wilkins lobbed a pass to the end zone towards 6’5” Wally Good. The pass was to no avail however as Brode Lewis intercepted the pass.
The Knight’s defense kept hope alive as they forced a punt and a botched snap forced Highland’s punter to fall on the ball at the Triad 48 yard line. This was when the tide finally began to turn.
As their drive stretched into the fourth quarter, the Knights knew they needed a big play. It finally came for them as Wilkins found a wide open Riggar off of a wheel route in the backfield. Riggar then side stepped a safety and broke a tackle from behind enroute to a 43 yard touchdown. A Jake Ellis extra point trimmed the deficit to 21-7 with 1o:41 to play.
Highland responded with one of their better drives in the second half, but it was still stalled out by the Knight’s defense. Yager returned the following punt out to the Triad 29 yard line.
A big run by Wilkins to start the drive and a Yager carry on a third and 21 kept the offense hot as they moved to the Bulldog’s 37 yard line. Halfback Josh Edison then finished the job from there as he cut up field after taking a sweep and showed his blistering speed all the way to the end zone for 37 yards. The extra point would be blocked, which was a big play for the Bulldogs.
The Bulldogs methodically moved down field on the ensuing drive, nearing midfield. Triad’s defense stood tall yet again though and forced a punt with four minutes to play.
The game plan was simple for Triad on this drive:get the ball to Yager. He bulldozed his way up the middle on first down for 11 yards. The next play he took a handoff to the left but bounced it back to the right for 18 more. On the third play of the game he burst through the line and showed his speed as he carried the ball 52 yards for a touchdown.
Now down 19-21, the Knights still needed a successful two point conversion to tie the game. A “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it mindset” was used and they elected to line Yager up in the wildcat for the extra point try. The hot handed back zoomed through a hole in the line and tied the game up.
With 2:26 left, Highland began their next drive. Edison nearly picked off a pass on the drive, but he couldn’t quite bring it in. Triad’s defense still got the job down however and forced a punt.
With 31.7 left in the game, the Knights moved into their opponent’s territory as WIlkins found an open Yager on a wheel route.
With just over 10 seconds left, Triad lined up for a game winning field goal attempt. The kick had plenty of leg, but went wide left. Highland kneeled down the ball to send the game to overtime.
High school overtimes are played college style, meaning teams alternate possessions from 15 yards out. The first team to outscore their opponents after each having a turn wins the game.
Triad started on offense, but did not find much success early as they gained a net 1 yard on their first two plays. The next play, Yager motioned out of the backfield and line up outside, leaving the back field empty. This forced Highland’s safety to play close over the top of Yager, leaving Wolf open at the goal line where he high pointed a laser from Wilkins for a 14 yard touchdown.
In face of their kicking woes of the day, Triad elected to go for a two point conversion. They went back to the Yager wildcat play and even as the defense knew what was coming, it couldn’t be stopped as he went out wide to the left for a score.
Allowing 29 unanswered points would certainly give Highland plenty of reason to be pessimistic, but they weren’t ready to give up quite yet. On a third down and five, Brent Wuebbels dropped back and found an open Eli Jones for the touchdown. For their two point play, the Bulldogs went back to the pass and Wuebbels found an open Cade Altadonna for the score to force a second overtime.
Highland started on offense in the second overtime. On first down, Wuebbels threw a one on one fade route, but Wolf made a great play and broke up the pass. Highland went back to the pass on second down and found an open Altadonna on a slant headed for the endzone. Triad’s Casey Mattea came up however and wrapped him up just short of the goalline.
With a third and one, things looked grim for the defense, but then senior Collin North burst into the backfield and wrestled both Highland’s quarterback and running back to the ground during a handoff. A sweep to the right on the next play failed, setting up the Knight’s offense in a score to win situation.
Faced with a third and two, disaster appeared to strike as Wilkins went to handoff to Yager-but he had turned to the wrong side. This ultimately proved to only be a small inconvenience as Wilkins took the ball himself and helicoptered into the end zone to win the game 35-29.
“I think everything that possibly could have gone wrong went wrong in the first half,” Triad coach Paul Bassler said. “But we did save a formation for the second half and I intentionally kept it in my back pocket so they wouldn’t have time to adjust at halftime.”
Statistically, Triad dominated the night. Yager totaled 232 yards in the game, more than Highland’s entire team did. Also in a rare sight for Triad, they outperformed their opponent in passing yards by a tally of 161-57.
Next week, Triad will travel to Mascoutah to take on the Indians for the MVC Bowl Championship. The Indians are 4-1 on their season, but their lone loss came earlier in the year against Triad in 6-0 fashion.
Bassler said of the rematch with Mascoutah,“We’ve just to prepare-we didn’t play very well against them the first time. And part of it is they are really good. They’ve got a really good defense and quarterback. So we definitely have our work cut out for us”.