WILMINGTON – Heading into Friday night's Class 3A second-round playoff game with Byron, Wilmington coach Jeff Reents expected a brawl.
He got it.
The defending state champion Wildcats and the Tigers from Byron went toe-to-toe for the entire 48 minutes, with Byron delivering the knockout blow on an 80-yard halfback option pass from Jacob Elsbury to Justin Martinez with 7:08 to play. A two-point conversion run by Avery Carlson put the finishing touch on a 42-35 Byron win that snapped Wilmington's win streak at 24.
"The offenses went back and forth tonight," Reents said. "We had some trouble with our run defense, but a lot of that had to do with how good their offense was. You knew with them having all their running backs back from last year that they would run the ball well."
Bryron (9-2) ran for nearly 400 yards, ripping through a Wilmington defense that had allowed only 14.5 points a game coming into Saturday night.
"They got us up front tonight," said Reents, a 1988 Morris graduate. "Generally, if we score 35 points, we win the game. But you have to tip your hat to Byron. They played a very good, very physical game and took it to us."
The Tigers served notice early that their running game would be tough to stop, as Carlson reeled off a 53-yard gain to the Wilmington 4-yard line on the second play from scrimmage. Two plays later, Elsbury scored from 2 yards out and Trevor Koritz's extra-point kick gave Byron a 7-0 lead. Carlson finished with 157 yards on 27 carries, while Elsbury ran for 200 yards on 15 attempts.
Wilmington answered quickly as Owen Weaver went 69 yards for a touchdown on the Wildcats' second play from scrimmage and Alex Hatten's kick tied the game.
Wilmington got the first defensive break of the game on Byron's next drive, when Tyler Brimer recovered a fumble and returned it to the Tigers' 38. Four plays later, quarterback Jeff Treadman hit Steve Smock in the end zone for a 15-yard TD reception and a 14-0 lead. After Wilmington forced a Byron punt, Weaver, who finished with 235 yards on 19 carries, broke loose for a 38-yard touchdown run to put Wilmington ahead, 21-7.
Byron, however, refused to go away and embarked on a 16-play, 68-yard drive that included two fourth-down conversions and ended with a 14-yard TD run by Martinez.
Wilmington went ahead 28-14 late in the second quarter on a 14-yard TD pass from Treadman to Sam Jones with 1:50 to go until halftime, but Elsbury broke loose for a 58-yard run to the Wilmington 6-yard line on a third-and-6 play. Carlson scored from a yard out with 4.5 seconds until halftime to make it 28-21.
"That touchdown right before halftime was a killer," Reents said. "It gave them some momentum heading into halftime."
The Tigers carried that momentum into the second half, forcing Wilmington to punt on the opening drive, then driving 35 yards on seven plays, the last 12 covered by Elsbury, to tie the game at 28 with 6:45 left in the third. After another Wilmington punt, Elsbury went 57 yards for a touchdown, but Wilmington blocked the extra point and the Tigers led, 34-28.
That blocked kick looked like it might loom large when Nick Hawkins (16 carries, 74 yards) scored from 2 yards out and Hatten's kick gave Wilmington a 35-34 lead. The Wildcats' John Cox then recovered a fumble at the Tigers' 23, but Wilmington couldn't score and Elsbury hit Martinez with the game-winning pass on the ensuing drive.
"They ran the ball well on us all night, then hit us with the big trick play for the win," Reents said. "It's going to be tough to see this senior class go. They won 24 straight games, including a state championship. A group like that doesn't come around often."