RILEY — The Riley County Falcons’ comeback bid fell just short Friday night as the Clay Center defense turned back Falcon quarterback Trace Nelson just short of the goal line on a two-point conversion with just 5 seconds remaining in regulation to escape with a 14-12 victory.
“It was nice after being down eight late in the game for our kids to find the reserves of energy to get a score and a chance to win the game,” Falcons’ coach Steve Wagner said. “It’s a two-point loss on the scoreboard, but it was a win for us in a lot of ways that will help us on down the road.”
The Falcons (0-1) trailed by eight after a 27-yard touchdown run by Clay Center running back Baylee Easterberg put the Tigers (1-0) ahead 14-6 with just 4:50 left in the fourth quarter.
Riley County had to respond quickly.
They did so on the second play of the ensuing drive. Nelson — who was 0-for-5 passing to that point — took a single-wing snap on second down, and rolled to his right hitting tight-end Jordan Taylor as he raced up the hash marks for a 46-yard completion to the Clay Center 19-yard line with 4:00 left to play.
“It was just a corner route, and we finally got it to land,” Taylor said. “It was big. It was in a big moment. We needed it right there.”
Two more big moments would follow. Three plays later, as the Falcons found themselves facing a fourth and nine from the Tiger 18-yard line. This time Nelson hit receiver Braden Cook up the middle to pick up the first down and move the Falcons inside the 10-yard line.
After two carries by running back Ian Eastes — a workhorse, leading all rushers with 149 yards on 32 carries — took the Falcons to within a yard of the end zone, fullback Gavin Grater took over.
Grater, who hadn’t carried the ball all night while leading the way for other Falcon runners, was stuffed for no gain on third down. The next play though, on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line, Grater muscled his 195-pound frame through the Tiger defense and across the goal line cutting the Clay Center lead to 14-12 with just 5 seconds left in regulation.
“He wanted it too. He asked for that ball and we gave it to him,” Wagner said. “Then he got in and that was great for him. You like kids, late in the game, who want the ball.”
It wasn’t enough though as Nelson was stopped short of the goal line on the two-point conversion. The Tigers recovered the ensuing onside kick attempt and headed back to Clay Center with the win in the season opener for both teams.
The two teams played a tough, physical style all game, especially in the first half, which saw just 208 yards of total offense and ended in a 0-0 tie.
A big part of that was a crucial goal-line stand in the first quarter on which the Falcons stopped consecutive quarterback sneak attempts on third and fourth down to keep the game scoreless.
A 52-yard rumble by Eastes set up the first score of the game when he scored on a 4-yard run three plays later to put the Falcons up 6-0 with 9:53 in the third quarter.
The Tigers pulled even after a nice punt return gave them a short field as they went 25 yards in three plays to make it 6-6 with 8:30 left in the fourth quarter. They took the lead for good on Easterberg’s run.
Riley County will play at Centralia this Friday.