By Ray Hamill — Trailing by three touchdowns at halftime of Saturday’s pivotal Little 4 matchup at Ferndale, the Arcata Tigers showed no signs of panic.
After all, they’d been there before. Just three weeks ago, in fact. Against the same team.
And once again, they rallied in the second half, battling their way back into the game and pulling out a 34-20 win that clinched the Little 4 championship.
The Tigers turned the ball over on five consecutive drives, three of which led directly to Ferndale touchdowns.
The first turnover was a fumble that Ferndale’s Trent Titus returned 40 yards for a score, and another resulted in an 80-yard pick six by Wes Renner.
Sandwiched in between was a fumble recovery by Henry Westfall that gave the Wildcats the ball deep in Arcata territory and set up a 13-yard Prescott Langer TD run just two plays later.
At halftime, however, Arcata head coach Matt Magers rallied this players, and the difference after the break was remarkable.
Sophomore Luke Lemke took over at quarterback in the third quarter and immediately led his team to TDs on their first four possessions of the half, three of them coming in the first 10 minutes of the third quarter and completely shifting the momentum.
“We were there before,” Magers said of the halftime deficit. “We did the exact same thing with this team the last time, and I told them ‘stop playing against yourself and play against your opponent.’”
The Arcata players took their coach’s words to heart and looked like a completely different team in the second half.
On their first possession of the third quarter, the fleet-footed Lemke scored on a 45-yard TD run, breaking a tackle and leaving the Ferndale defense in his dust.
The Arcata defense, which has been the one consistent for the team all season, then quickly held the home team to a three-and-out and the offense immediately went back to work.
On the very first play of the ensuing drive, Lemke scrambled to his left and lofted a high-arching pass to the end zone, which receiver Dayquan Dunn pulled in for a TD despite facing double coverage.
Check out Dayquan Dunn’s TD catch below …
The Arcata defense, which gave up just one first down in the second half, then forced another quick three-and-out and the offense would capitalize again six plays later when Alex Greenway ran into the end zone from a yard out to give his team a 22-20 lead with just under two minutes remaining in the quarter.
With the momentum shifting so quickly and so decisively there was no way back for the Wildcats after that.
“We came out with a little different look (in the second half),” Magers said. “It was successful, we rolled with it and we took over the game.”
Once the Tigers got ahead, their defense made sure there would be no way back for the home team, which needed to win the game to have a shot at winning the league title.
“Our defense was lights out as usual,” the Arcata coach said.
Lemke and starting quarterback Cole Vandenplas, who came back in on offense in the fourth quarter, each added a TD on QB sneaks in the final quarter to make sure there would be no way back for the home team.
The five first-half turnovers came on three Vandenplas interceptions and a pair of fumbles.
“Cole struggled a little bit but I didn’t want to completely go away from him,” Magers explained. “We were running the ball effectively in the first half, but we had a lot of fumbles and a lack of focus.
When the team’s defense is playing as good as it is this season, the Tigers are always capable of coming back from a big deficit with their dynamic offense.
While Lemke clearly was the catalyst for the comeback once again, just as he was three weeks ago, he was far from the only star on Saturday.
Dunn was equally impressive, not just with his athletic catch for the TD, but also with his play at linebacker where he has established himself as one of the unit’s biggest playmakers.
“He’s turning into something special at linebacker,” Magers said of the junior star who has five interceptions this season. “He’s really coming into his own. He’s making it happen.”
The hard-hitting Neiko Bryson also had a big game in the win after missing last week’s game through injury, while teammates Lincoln Newman, Jackson Strand and Cal Tucker all impressed as well.
Tucker had his best game yet for the Tigers and made an impact on both sides of the ball.
The junior had an interception on defense and made some big catches at receiver while picking up some of the slack after Oscar Carlson was sidelined with an injury in the first half.
Tucker and Lemke each had a two-point conversion on their team’s opening two TDs.
Kayden Hackett also has lifted the level of his game late in the season and was outstanding on the D-line.
“That kid’s an animal,” Magers said. “That kid is flying around.”
The Wildcats also had some big plays on defense, most notably in the first half, with Langer and Tanner Pidgeon each coming down with an interception.
The win was the fifth straight for the Tigers and lifts them to 5-0 in the Little 4 with one game remaining and 7-2 on the season.
It also guarantees them a playoff spot and will more than likely will give them a home game in the opening round of the Division-6 bracket.
Ferndale dropped to 3-2 in league and 5-4 overall.
One big disappointment for the Tigers was the loss of the influential Carlson who appears done for the season.