CLAYTON -- Friday's regular season finale for South Putnam had a little bit more than usual riding on the outcome.
At 2-2 in the WCC, a victory over Cascade would give the Eagles the outright second place position behind a dominant North Putnam squad. Conversely, Cascade also had a shot at second place with a win on Senior Night.
It looked early on like the Eagles were going to cruise to victory behind a punishing running game. A 17-0 lead would not be safe, however, as ball security once again hounded South Putnam and allowed the Cadets to scramble back into the game.
In the end, Cascade simply ran out of time as they fell to the visiting Eagles 24-19.
South Putnam took the opening possession and simply hammered the Cadets. Behind the running of Zach Smith and Rob Gibson, the Eagles marched the ball 70 yards over 10 plays, including a 32 yard completion on fourth and four from Grant Zimmerman to Dean Varvel.
The drive finished with Gibson following the right side of the offensive line in for six points. Jake Gould's extra point gave the Eagles an early 7-0.
Gould then sent the kickoff into the end zone. Cascade gained a first down, but punted soon afterwards. Gibson took the first handoff of the possession 40 yards before being up-ended. The drive stalled out, but Gould hit a 29 yard field goal to make the score 10-0.
Cascade had trouble getting the offense up and going and the Eagles soon found themselves starting at the Cascade 30. Before they could convert, however, Gibson put the ball on the ground for the third time in the contest and Cascade recovered at their own five yard line.
The Cadets could only muster five yards before punting away again and this time Gibson made no mistake. A 24-yard run by the junior upped the visitor's lead to 17-0 and raised doubts about the rest of the game being competitive.
Cascade's defense finally stiffened up as both squads traded possession back and forth for the majority of the second quarter. There were signs that the Cadet offense could get rolling but lost the ball twice to derail promising possessions.
Ryan Chestnut stole the ball inside the Eagle 20 after Alex Arthur was knocked off balance to stop one drive. With a minute left in the half, Zimmerman picked off an overthrown ball from Colin Smith to prevent a touchdown.
The Eagles tried to make a move after the interception, but two incompletions and a sack allowed Cascade to take control of the ball with 27 seconds left and the ball at their own 40 yard line.
After recording a first down, Cascade went to the back of the playbook and dialed up a reverse pass. Arthur hit Zach Baldwin with a 41-yard strike to set the Cadets up at the Eagle six. With only a few seconds left, Smith threw a lob to Baldwin for a score as time expired and gave the Cadets hope going into halftime with the score 17-7.
The third quarter flew by as neither side attempted a pass nor put the ball in the end zone. Cascade started off with a 12-play drive that ended with a punt after stalling inside South Putnam territory.
The Eagles could not capitalize after Zimmerman and Gibson were not on the same page and a pitch from the quarterback was well ahead of the tailback, with Cascade recovering the ball again.
Cascade went nowhere on the possession and punted back to the Eagles. Zimmerman mishandled the punt, but was able to recover as three Cascade defenders converged around him.
South soon couldn't get out of their own way as a holding penalty saw them pinned deep within their own territory and forced to punt again. This time, Cascade would make a breakthrough.
From the Eagle 40, Cascade used Arthur four times to get down to the South Putnam six yard line. Smith hooked up with Baldwin again to cut the deficit to four points. Gibson blocked the extra point and the Eagles clung to a 17-13 lead.
With the game in the balance, South Putnam began a long and grueling drive that ate up seven minutes of clock and added seven points to the scoreboard. The fourteen play drive saw Gibson and Brayden Freeman carry the bulk of the load, with Freeman hammering out 32 yards in the middle that switched he ball from the Eagle 35 to the Cascade 33.
Gibson would have two critical runs of his own on the drive. One gained the Eagles a vital first down on a fourth and three play. The other saw Gibson run in behind the right side of the line and make a leaping entry into the end zone for a 14-yard touchdown that seemed to ice the game.
Cascade would not surrender and scored late to raise some eyebrows. Completions from Smith to Baldwin and Eric Bobidilla moved the Cadets inside the Eagle 15-yard line with a little over thirty seconds to go. After a scramble by Smith, the Cadets handed off to Arthur for a five-yard touchdown run.
The two point conversion was thrown off the head of Drew Scott, forcing the Cadets to go for an onside kick. The kick was recovered by the reliable hands of Freeman and the Eagles finally held on to secure second place in the WCC this year.
Ball security has been the Eagles' biggest issue, one that can't rear up again in the viewpoint of head coach Troy Burgess.
"We can't turn it over. If we've had a setback here, we cannot put the football on the ground and we've had some trouble with that," Burgess said. "Robbie [Gibson] would be the first to tell you, can't put the thing on the ground. Gotta quit putting it on the ground, and he knows that," Burgess added when asked about Gibson.
Cascade didn't give up trailing 17-0 and the display of fighting spirit was not lost on Burgess
"I give a lot of credit to Cascade. Cascade was playing for a second place finish in the conference. The winner of this game had the outright second place in the conference. We both came in 2-2 and the winner would go to 3-2 and the loser would go to 2-3 and tie every one else."
"I give a lot of credit to what (Cascade head coach) Josh (Hagenow) has done here. He's got them playing good football, they're hard-nosed and were ready to play tonight. I give them all the credit in the world," Burgess continued.
With the regular season completed, all eyes turn to sectional play and the Eagles, while snaring a home game to open play, must do so against No. 4 ranked and county rival North Putnam. The game plan is fairly simple as far as Burgess is concerned.
"We've got to take care of the football. We can't put it on the ground. Offensively, we've got to continue doing our jobs and defensively, we played North Putnam fairly well for three quarters. It was 14-7 at half and they put 21 points on us five minutes into the third quarter. We just kind of fell apart there," Burgess mentioned about the first meeting, a 35-7 victory for the Cougars.
"We've got to do our jobs defensively, know what our assignments are and be fundamentally better than we were five weeks ago. Then we'll see what happens. I'm excited to play North Putnam," Burgess said.
"I think our kids are excited. I know they're excited to play us. I think it's a great county rivalry and I've got a ton of respect for what (North Putnam head coach) Greg (Barrett) does. He's got a great group of kids. But you know what? We've got a great group of kids too."
"I think it ought to be a good ball game."
South Putnam 10 7 0 7 -- 24
Cascade 0 7 0 12 -- 19
7:49 -- Gibson 3 yard run (J. Gould kick) 0-7
2:43 -- J. Gould 29-yard field goal 0-10
7:48 -- Gibson 24 yard run (J. Gould kick) 0-17
0:00 -- Smith 6 yard pass to Baldwin (Butler kick) 7-17
8:19 -- Smith 6 yard pass to Baldwin (XP blocked) 13-17
1:34 -- Gibson 14 yard run (J. Gould kick) 13-24
0:12 -- Arthur 5 yard run (Two-point conversion failed) 19-24
Next game -- South Putnam begins sectional play, hosting No. 4 North Putnam at Wildman Field next Friday at 7 p.m.