Playing in its first playoff game in 40 seasons, the Norwalk football team had the ball 2nd-and-goal at the Columbian 3-yard line, trailing 34-28 in the second overtime of Friday’s Division III Region 8 quarterfinal.
Then disaster struck.
The snap to quarterback Jordan Johnson sailed upwards of five feet over his head, and bounced clear back to the 35.
Johnson was able to scoop it up to keep the Truckers season alive, but had too much pressure to get off an incomplete pass.
That led to a third-and-goal from the 30, and on the ensuing play, Johnson was again under heavy pressure and forced out at the 29.
Facing fourth-and-goal from the 29, the senior QB's end zone throw was batted around and fell incomplete, giving the Tornadoes a dramatic 34-28 2OT win.
It was a excruciating end to an impressive season for Norwalk, which finished 9-2 overall. Columbian (10-1) advances to play defending Div. II state champion Toledo Central Catholic (11-0) next week.
It was the second thriller between the two teams, as Columbian also rallied late for a 24-20 win in the Northern Ohio League opener Sept. 20 in Norwalk.
“He’s a young kid, a sophomore who has been and will continue to be a great center for us. I told the kids there isn’t one play in a game that costs us,” Norwalk coach Chris MacFarland said. “It’s a team effort with a lot of plays in a game, and football is a game of who makes the fewest mistakes.”
Columbian missed a 33-yard field goal with 19 seconds left in the fourth quarter to force the extra sessions.
On the first play of overtime, Norwalk’s Breck Turner — the area's leading rusher and scorer — made two moves and used his speed to score on a 20-yard run. Grant Hull's PAT gave Norwalk a 28-21 lead.
Quick to follow suit, the Tornadoes scored on their first play of overtime, as quarterback Donovan Walker found a wide open Ryan Lynch for a 20-yard TD pass, and Derek Dryfuse’s PAT sent it to the second overtime.
This time, Columbian needed three plays to score, with Walker finding Dryfuse on a 12-yard TD pass. However, the PAT was botched and never got off the ground, and suddenly the door was open for Norwalk to win the game.
But it closed just as quick, as the bad snap came after a Johnson fourth-and-1 rush and a 7-yard run by Turner to the Columbian 3.
Columbian coach Brian Colatruglio knew his team escaped, and was kicking himself once the PAT was unsuccessful. After scoring the first TD, Colatruglio called timeout and considered going for two and the win, rather than to play on.
“I should have went for two the first time,” he said. “That’s why we called the timeout, because we were thinking about it hard, but I didn’t have the guts to pull the trigger. We knew when we missed the PAT we had to keep them out of the end zone somehow and ... their kid probably hasn’t had a bad snap all year. You feel bad for the kid, they played a great game.
“That’s just a fluke play, and we're fortunate to get out of here with a win,” Colatruglio added. “Just a great game between two extremely talented football teams that left everything on the field.”
Norwalk opened the game with a quick six-play, 56-yard scoring drive as Johnson found Joseph Hinckley between two defenders in the end zone for a 12-yard TD pass, and the Truckers had an early 7-0 lead just 2:31 into the game.
But setting a tone for the night, Columbian's Lynch responded just four plays later with a 60-yard scoring run and Dryfuse tied it on a PAT at the 8:21 mark. Both defenses then tightened up, and the rest of the half was highlighted by turnovers from both sides.
The Tornadoes did manage to take a 14-7 lead into halftime, as Walker was able to find Justin Flint on a fourth-and-8 pass from the 36 that went for 29 yards down to the Norwalk 7. Lynch scored the next play at the 4:42 mark for the 14-7 lead.
To open the second half, the Norwalk defense was able to get Columbian off the field in six plays, and after a 16-yard punt return by Johnson, the Trucker offense was in business at the Tornadoes’ 35.
Five plays later, Johnson again found Hinckley, who shook off a tackler and ran for a 23-yard gain to the 2, where Johnson scored from the next play at the 6:47 mark of the third to tie the game at 14.
Each team then traded a pair of possessions, then Norwalk took a 21-14 lead with a 8-play, 78-yard scoring drive that took 2:33 off the fourth quarter clock. On third-and-8 at the Tiffin 36, Johnson found Seth Staley for a 13-yard gain to the 23.
The next play, after being bottled up for the better part of two quarters, Turner again showcased his speed and agility, circling around two defenders, and sprinting past a third en route to a 23-yard scoring run with 6:19 left in the game.
But after making several defensive stands in the second half, the Norwalk defense just missed getting one more. On third-and-12 from the 29, Walker went deep for Flint, who briefly bobbled the ball, but managed to stay in bounds and outran two defenders for a 71-yard pass and catch to tie the game with 5:22 left.
“That was probably the biggest play of the game,” Colatruglio said.
“But both teams made a lot of big plays, and when you have a lot of talented athletes out there, that's what happens. It was fun to watch. Not so much when Johnson and Turner had the ball, but overall it was fun to watch.”
Norwalk drove to the Columbian 21 with under two minutes to play, but on a third down play, Turner was thrown for a six-yard loss.
MacFarland elected to send out Hull for a 44-yard field goal attempt with 1:29 left. The kick was long enough, but sailed wide by about five yards. That led to Columbian’s last ditch attempt at the Dryfuse field goal that also missed, forcing OT.
“Our kids played in an outstanding game between two quality football teams,” MacFarland said. “It comes down to the last play, because the momentum swings were unbelievable in it. I’m just so proud of our kids from where we've come from. These seniors have done an outstanding job and I want to thank them, their parents and the community for supporting us.”
It was a tough end to an otherwise historic and banner season for the Truckers, who ended the longest drought in OHSAA football playoff history with this year's appearance.
“The thing we've changes in five years is our kids believe in the program,” MacFarland said. “They believe they can compete with any team. To go from 1-9 five years ago to 9-1 and in the playoffs says a lot.
“Our first win five years ago was in overtime to Upper that was a springboard to an overtime game here in the playoffs. Athletes are going to make plays, and we held them to as much as we thought we could, we just didn't get the last break in the overtime. But because they believe in themselves and believe in Norwalk, that’s why they were able to play at such a high level.”
Turner finished with 128 yards and 3 TDs on 23 attempts for Norwalk, while Johnson was 8-of-12 passing for 134 yards and a TD, and added 52 yards an a TD on 26 rushing attempts, counting the bad snap recovery.