TRAVERSE CITY — The crowd held its collective breath as officials stretched the chain for a pivotal measurement.
Traverse City Central tacklers motioned first down, thinking they had made the stop. DeWitt offensive linemen made the same gesture in the opposite direction, confident quarterback Andrew Schorfhaar gained enough to pick up the yard the offense needed.
The referees stared for a moment before signaling first down DeWitt.
The ruling came with 2:52 to play in the fourth quarter and the Panthers leading 24-20, sparking DeWitt to finish the drive with the touchdown it needed to grab a 31-20 lead and hold on for a 31-26 season-opening victory over Central.
“He looked short. We’re talking not even a chain link,” Central coach Eric Schugars said. “I’ve never seen it in my years of coaching a fourth down as close as it was. I mean, I really thought we had the stop.”
The play was a microcosm of the shortcomings Central faced throughout the game that ultimately held the Trojans short of a win on Thirlby Field.
The game’s second-largest moment came several minutes earlier. Central drove the inside the DeWitt 10 with 10 minutes to play in the game and trailing 24-17. Schugars mulled the decision to go for it on fourth-and-5 or kick a short field goal.
He felt the need for six points, but Smith’s pass intended for wide receiver Trey Searles fell incomplete.
“Now I’m thinking back, maybe kick a field goal there,” Schugars said. “As a head coach you make those decisions; I thought we needed to score that touchdown. We were down seven.
“I felt like our offense had momentum. I felt like they were on their heels. And it was fourth and short, you know, so I feel it’s a play that we can make, and I trust our offensive guys.”
Central’s defense made a quick stop after the failed conversion and took advantage of a short field before stalling once more inside the 10-yard line. This time, Schugars sent in the kicker to cut the deficit to 24-20 with 6:32 to play.
Central had their chances after that, but time began to play a factor. When Schorfhaar converted the critical fourth down, followed by the last touchdown, Central faced incredible odds.
“Defensively, we couldn’t get a stop in that third, that fourth quarter,” Schugars said. “We had (Schorfhaar) and he just broke contain. And we did that a couple times. And that hurts you man.
“We had chances in the second half, we just couldn’t get the stop when we needed to, couldn’t get the pivotal play on offense.”
The Trojans began the game with offensive struggles.
Senior quarterback Peyton Smith, who played for Ithaca last season, turned the ball over on Central’s first three possessions. He was sacked and fumbled on the opening drive and threw interceptions on the two which followed.
Fortunately the defense picked up the slack, holding DeWitt to just three points despite the extra opportunities.
Central’s Josh Burnham, Luke Morrison and Jordan Liggett each finished with a team-high 10 tackles.
Central took a 7-3 lead in the second quarter on a 32-yard touchdown pass from Smith to Trey Searles up the right hash as the quarterback worked to recover from the slow start.
Searles finished with game-high eight catches and 128 yards.
The teams battled to a 10-10 stalemate at halftime after Central’s Alex Parks nailed a 40-yard field goal.
DeWitt grabbed a 17-10 lead in the third quarter on a 43-yard touchdown pass from Schorfhaar to Tommy McIntosh, one of several big receivers Central had trouble containing.
McIntosh led the Panthers with seven catches for 107 yards and two scores.
Central tied the game 17-17 with a 16-yard touchdown pass from Smith to Mitchell Stachnik.
Smith finished his TC Central debut 15 of 28 passing for 203 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions.
DeWitt took the lead for good on a 9-yard touchdown pass from Schorfhaar to Mason Gilbert in the final minute of the third quarter.
Schorfhaar scored the Panthers’ final touchdown with two minutes to play to give DeWitt a 31-20 lead. Schorfhaar completed 14 of 29 passes for 190 yards, three touchdowns and an interception and ran 26 times for 126 yards and one touchdown.
Central immediately responded with a 5-play, 61-yard drive that ended in a 1-yard touchdown run for Josh Burnham with 1:02 to play. The Trojans’ ensuing onside kick attempt was recovered by DeWitt, which then kneeled out the clock.
“I love them man. I love our kids,” Schugars said. “They have grit, and they fought. They fought right to the end. Our team believes we’re going to score and kick an onside kick. We believed it. Eleven points is really nothing. I never think we’re out of it, but I hate to be in that position at that point.
“I felt we played good enough to beat this team.”
- Traverse City Central’s situational defense was outstanding in the first, keeping the Trojans in the game. DeWitt’s first three possessions began on the Central 30-, 13- and 36-yard lines, respectively, yet Central only have up three points on a 27-yard field goal.
- Tylor McCoon showcased his talents as a special teams weapon for Central. The junior punted four times for 186 yards (46.0 avg.), including three pinned inside the DeWitt 10-yard line. His best was a 63-yard boomer that was pinned at the 1-yard line.
- Austin Bills introduced himself as Central’s lead running back, carrying 10 times for 59 yards, including a 31-yarder that displayed acceleration and power. The rest of the Trojans ground game struggled to the tune of 22 carries for 38 yards (1.7 yards per carry).
DeWitt 31 TC Central 26