The turnovers, empty possessions, missed tackles and mental mistakes all contributed to a rare occurrence on Friday night: The No. 1-ranked Owatonna football team was trailing and painfully running out of time.
No, it wasn’t looking good for the Huskies at their home stadium against No. 8-ranked Mankato West — and when Max Goertzen hauled-in a 38-yard bullet from Jack Foster just three plays into the fourth quarter — it was looking downright ominous as the Scarlets expanded their lead to 10 points.
But then, something happened.
Like a slow fuse kindled by a deep kick return, fueled by a quick touchdown and finally detonated by a 10-yard Tanner Hall gallop, Owatonna exploded in the fourth quarter and kept its perfect season — and 23-game winning streak — alive.
When Foster’s final throw sailed harmlessly out of bounds and Owatonna took over with roughly 50 seconds on the clock, a collective sigh could be heard on the home sideline.
The Huskies had stared defeat in the face, and instead of surrendering under the intense pressure, rose to the occasion and maintained their perfect record, captured the Big Southeast District Red Division championship and solidified their spot as the No. 1-ranked team in the state.
“We had talked about this being a big game,” Owatonna coach Jeff Williams said. “It’s not the most important game that we are going to see this season, but it is a big game against an evenly-matched opponent, a group that we have had a great rivalry with and great respect for. To find a way to win this one is just really satisfying.”
The best way to properly deconstruct one of Owatonna’s most thrilling regular season victories in the “state championship era” would be to start after the Scarlets swelled their lead to 20-10 with 11 minutes, 16 seconds on the clock. On the ensuing kickoff, Keenan Young fielded the ball, sprinted into an opening up the middle of the field and ran into a mass of white and red jerseys. Keeping his legs churning and staying balanced as a wave of Mankato West defenders tried to take him down, Young emerged from the crowd and galloped down the right sideline before being pushed out of bounds at the Scarlets’ 25-yard line.
Tanner Hall sustained the momentum and kept the massive OHS crowd on their feet by weaving through the West defense for a 21-yard gain on the first play of the possession. On the next snap, he was in the end zone and celebrating with his jubilant teammates as he made his way back to the sideline.
The Scarlets got the ball back with 10:22 on the clock and earned their final first down of the game when Wyatt Block bullied forward for a 5-yard gain on 2nd-and-3. Following a short completion, Foster was rocked in the backfield by Carter DeBus for a 6-yard loss and was nearly intercepted on 3rd-and-long from just inside Owatonna territory.
The Huskies caught a huge break on the next play after a punt that was downed inside the 5-yard line was nullified by an illegal motion penalty. Instead, Owatonna started at its own 22 and popped a 43-yard gain on a Brayden Truelson-to-Isaac Oppegard connection to keep the wheels churning, and more importantly, flip the field position.
“We talked about going to that play if we needed it during practice this week and I went over to coach and mentioned it to him and he said he was thinking the same thing,” Truelson said of his longest completion of the game. “We came out and ran it the first play of the drive and it worked.”
Though Owatonna’s drive stalled just inside the red zone after getting stuffed on fourth down, it didn’t take long for the Huskies to get the ball back in prime position after a 3-and-out and a short Scarlets’ punt.
Setting up shop at the near midfield, Truelson lofted a spiral down the left sideline in the direction of receiver, Payton Beyer. As he has done numerous times over the previous three weeks, the junior timed his jump perfectly, cradled the ball in mid-air and fell on his back, all while maintaining possession and staying in-bounds. After a defensive pass interference penalty was declined, Owatonna was cooking at the 20 yard line after what was the prettiest play of the game.
“I kept telling him the whole game, ‘you are going to get a big opportunity, so make it,’” Truelson said of his message to Beyer. “I had the play called, threw it up to him and he made a great play.”
After consecutive Hall runs that gained 10 yards, the rising junior took a handoff from Truelson’s left, quickly gained the edge, kicked past a would-be tackler from the backside and sprinted to freedom, crossing the goal line for the game-winning touchdown with 1 minute, 9 seconds on the clock.
“I saw the hole and Gefre gave a really good block, and I saw (West linebacker Zander Dittbenner) cheat down, so I just did a little move and ran to the edge and scored,” Hall said of the game-deciding touchdown. “It feels really good. Because once they trust you and you get the ball more, it’s really fun and the o-line definitely did an awesome job.”
Defensively, Owatonna tightened the screws in the game’s final 10:15, yielding just 14 total yards while holding Foster to 2 of 8 passing in the span.
“There was just nobody springing free in the fourth quarter,” Williams said. “Our DBs were in lock-down mode.”