Four seconds remained and Madison Memorial football coach Michael Harris had a game-altering decision to make Friday night.
The Spartans, with the ball at the Verona 3-yard line, could attempt a potential game-tying field goal that would force overtime.
Or Big Eight Conference-leading Memorial could play for the win and keep its undefeated season alive right at that moment in the rain and mud at Mansfield Stadium.
Harris, believing in his offensive line, went for it. And Kabaris Vasser, a 6-foot-1, 210-pound junior running back, powered in behind the left side of the line for a 3-yard touchdown run as time expired.
That gave the Spartans a 27-24 come-from-behind victory over visiting Verona in Memorial’s homecoming game that began 33 minutes late due to a lightning delay.
“We could have gone for the tie, but I have all the faith in the world with the offensive line,” Harris said. “They are starting to bond well and gel as a unit. … They looked at me and said, `Coach, we’ve got this. We’ll do it.’ So I trusted them and said, `Let’s go for it.’ I believe in them and they believe in me. I’m very proud of that unit.”
Memorial (6-0, 6-0 Big Eight), ranked sixth among large schools in The Associated Press state poll, rallied from a 24-7 fourth-quarter deficit and stunned Verona (4-2, 4-2), which lost its second consecutive game in the final seconds.
“Just throughout the game, we were fighting as a team,” said Vasser, who scored Memorial’s final two touchdowns in the 20-point fourth quarter. “I would never have made that touchdown without any of my players or without any of my brothers. Without them, I am nothing.
“We could have (gone for the field goal), but it was one of those games where we wanted to put the dagger in and finish them off, and they trusted me to do that. … I gave it all I had for my team.”
Four turnovers — including three lost fumbles — put Memorial in the hole. Verona scored 10 points in the final 59 seconds of the first half to take a 17-point lead into halftime. But senior Kam Marshall and Vasser gave the Spartans two backs with more than 100 yards rushing and helped Memorial mount the second-half rally.
Marshall scored on a 2-yard run with 10 minutes, 1 second remaining in the fourth quarter, rallying Memorial within 24-14. Then Vasser powered in on a 4-yard touchdown run with 4:02 left, cutting Memorial’s deficit to three points.
“I felt like if we could get a few first downs and another score in the second half, I thought, ‘This game is over,’’’ Verona coach Dave Richardson said. “I got a little too conservative with the play-calling. We couldn’t get enough first downs to keep the clock moving, and they made plays. We put our defense in a tough, tough situation. It’s just too bad.”
Despite the rain, Verona effectively mixed the pass with its Wing formation running attack in the first half. The Wildcats drove 80 yards for a score on their first drive, which was capped by junior running back Graham Stier’s 25-yard touchdown run directly up the middle with 8:26 left in the first quarter.
Senior quarterback Adam Bekx completed five passes for 48 yards on the drive, including two to senior receiver Aubrey Dawkins and two to junior tight end James Rae.
Memorial moved down the field on the next series. Vasser broke five tackles on a 27-yard run to the Verona 10, but fumbled the ball. After a wild scramble, Verona senior linebacker Kyle Walton was credited with the fumble recovery in the end zone for a touchback.
A Memorial scoring bid in the second quarter was halted when Verona senior linebacker Ben Cramer recovered Marshall’s fumble at the Wildcats’ 5-yard line with 10:51 left in the second quarter.
The Wildcats then drove 95 yards. Verona junior Jackson Acker, a University of Wisconsin recruit, powered in on a 2-yard touchdown run with 6:19 left in the second quarter.
Memorial answered. Spartans senior quarterback Jason Ceniti tossed a 23-yard touchdown to senior receiver LeKwan Lewis, cutting Memorial’s deficit to 14-7 with 2:14 left before halftime.
But Bekx connected on a 36-yard touchdown pass to Dawkins for a 21-7 lead with 59 seconds remaining. After Walton recovered a Ceniti fumble with 39 seconds left, Verona freshman Mason Armstrong converted a 28-yard field goal as time expired in the first half — boosting Verona’s lead to 24-7 at halftime.
But Ceniti said he and his teammates were determined to come back after halftime.
“(We talked about), `Whatever happens, we stay together. As long as there is time on the clock, we are going to get it done,’’’ Ceniti said.
Verona 7 17 0 0 — 24
Memorial 0 7 0 20 — 27
V — Stier 25 run (Armstrong kick)
V — Acker 2 run (Armstrong kick)
MM — Lewis 23 pass from Ceniti (Kerkhoff kick)
V — Dawkins 36 pass from Bekx (Armstrong kick)
V — FG Armstrong 28
MM — Marshall 2 run (Kerkhoff kick)
MM — Vasser 4 run (Kerkhoff kick)
MM — Vasser 3 run
First downs— V 18, MM 27. Rushes-yards — V 35-211, MM 47-278. Passing yards — V 131, MM 150. Comp-Att-Int — V 11-17-0, MM 10-16-1. Fumbles-lost — V 3-0, MM 5-3. Penalties-yards— V 3-25, MM 2-25.
Rushing: V, Acker 24-103. MM, Marshall 24-162, Vasser 13-127. Passing: V, Bekx 11-17-131-0. MM, Ceniti 10-16-150-1. Receiving: V, Dawkins 4-59. MM, Hoeser 3-40.
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