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Homecoming Heartbreaker

Harrisburg falls 45-44 in final minutes

Justin Addison, Editor/Publisher
Posted 9/19/23

The Harrisburg Bulldogs surrendered lead late in the game to lose a heartbreaker Friday night on Homecoming, 45-44, to Milan.

After taking a one-touchdown lead with two and a half minutes …

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Homecoming Heartbreaker

Harrisburg falls 45-44 in final minutes


The Harrisburg Bulldogs surrendered lead late in the game to lose a heartbreaker Friday night on Homecoming, 45-44, to Milan.

After taking a one-touchdown lead with two and a half minutes remaining, Harrisburg seemed to have the game in hand. But Milan ran back the ensuing kickoff for a touchdown to come within one point of the lead. Instead of kicking for the point-after attempt, which would have tied the game, the Wildcats opted to go for the win with a two-point conversion. Senior Ahmet Niasse ran the ball in to go up by one point with 2:28 remaining on the clock.

Harrisburg had a chance to make a comeback, but Milan intercepted a pass from quarterback Trace Combs to Hunter Cole on the right sideline to seal the win for the Wildcats.

“Unfortunately, that’s the way we practiced on Thursday,” said Harrisburg coach Brennan Claas. “We didn't come out very focused on this Homecoming week. The little things got us beat tonight. Way too many mental errors.”

That lack of focus early on was on full display. The Bulldogs punted on the opening drive of the game. On their second possession, a series of false starts pinned them behind the sticks deep in their own territory. Finally forced to punt, Milan got a hand on the ball, blocking the kick. Senior Don-Divin Ngombo recovered the lose ball in the endzone to give Milan its first touchdown of the night.

Another bad series by the Bulldogs ended in a quarterback sack when the Wildcats defense blew up a conversion attempt on fourth-and-one. Milan started the drive on the Harrisburg 32-yard line. Two big running plays by Chris Cotto gave the Wildcats a two-touchdown lead barely 10 minutes into the game.

Down 14-0 in the first quarter, the Bulldogs showed signs of life when senior Hayven Samuels made a big kickoff return to midfield. Two plays later, Combs slung the ball to senior Hunter Cole in traffic for a 55-yard touchdown play.

Combs found Cole again on the left side of the endzone for a two-point conversion.

“I told them we were going to be in for a dog fight before we got out here,” Claas said about falling behind early. “I said, ‘pick yourselves up off the mat and let’s go and try to knock them down.’ We responded excellently. Better than we have done in the past. I have to give our kids credit for that.”

Milan’s next possession ended on its own 44-yard line when Harrisburg recovered a fumble to regain possession.

After working their way to the 2-yard line, Combs pushed across the goal line on a quarterback sneak. He then found Cole again on the two-point conversion attempt to put the Bulldogs ahead 16-14 early in the second quarter.

Harrisburg would get the ball right back when Samuels fell on the ball during the ensuing onside kick. Two plays later, sophomore Caleb Sager got loose and ran about 40 yards for the third straight Bulldogs’ touchdown. Another successful two-point attempt on a pass to Cole gave Harrisburg a 24-14 lead.

Milan threatened throughout the remainder of the first half. A 23-yard field goal attempt fell just short with 4:21 left in the second quarter. Two minutes later, junior Bryce Ott intercepted a pass at the goal line preserve Harrisburg’s lead.

But the Wildcats weren’t finished. After sacking Combs twice and forcing a punt on Harrisburg’s next possession, Milan got the ball back. With 20 seconds left, Cotto ran 35 yards for a touchdown. Niasse then rushed for the two-point conversion to cut Harrisburg’s lead to two points at halftime.

The Wildcats took the lead on their first possession of the second half when Cotto found room on the right sideline for a 37-yard scamper to the endzone. The two-point conversion was good to put the Cats on top by six.

Harrisburg answered on its next drive when another deep pass to Cole resulted in a 69-yard touchdown to tie the game at 30-30.

The Wildcats retook the lead with 93 seconds left to play in the third quarter on a three-yard run by Cotto. The kick was good to put Milan in front by seven.

The Bulldogs would answer just a minute into the fourth quarter with another long play when Sager sprang loose for on a 45-yard run to the end zone. A two-point conversion put Harrisburg back in front by one. 

With 2:30 left to play late in the fourth quarter, Harrisburg scored again, this time on a 37-yard touchdown pass to Cole. The two-point conversion failed, but the Bulldogs still maintained a seven-point lead. 

But Milan found a way to turn the tables once more when Cotto sped down the right sideline to return the kickoff for a touchdown. Rather than tie the game with a kick, the Wildcats went for broke. The handoff to Niasse resulted in a two-point conversion to put Milan on top by one point with less than two and a half minutes to play. 

Harrisburg started their final drive on its own 29-yard line and marched the ball down field. But a pickoff by Milan on the right sideline ended Harrisburg chances.

“I’m so proud of the boys,” Claas said. “I know it's tough with all of these mental errors. A lot of guys are going to feel like it was their fault but it was a team thing. We just have to keep getting better. I’m still proud of the fight, we could have given up early. They dug down deep and they fired back pretty well. I’m proud of them.”

Offensively, Harrisburg racked up more than 400 yards. Combs completed 15 of 22 passing attempts for 264 yards and three touchdowns with one interception. He also scored once on the ground.

Combs found Cole six times for 198 yards and all three passing touchdowns.

Sager led the rushing attack with 146 yards on 14 carries and two touchdowns. He also made four catches for 39 yards.

Samuels ran the ball nine times for 14 yards and made one catch for eight yards.

Despite the impressive offensive production, Harrisburg’s defense struggled to contain Milan’s rushing game. And starting slow in the first quarter put the Bulldogs at an early disadvantage.

“We have to clean up a lot of little stuff,” Class said. “A lot of things got us beat tonight. We have to come out and we have to practice better. A lot of that was mental.”

Harrisburg falls to 1-3 overall and faces a three-week road trip. On Friday, the Bulldogs travel to Lewis & Clark rival Salisbury. The 1-3 Panthers lost their second straight game last week at Scotland County, 41-21. Their only win of the season came in Week 2 against winless Carrollton, 38-18.

Harrisburg and Salisbury met in the preseason Jamboree on August 18 in Fayette. But Claas said neither team showed much in the early scrimmage.

“I'm sure they’ll have some things they figured out that they’re good at and that they’re running pretty well,” he said. “We’ll try to come up with a plan for that and figure out a way to attack their defense.”

Kickoff Friday is at 7 p.m. From there, Harrisburg travels to Versailles to face Ash Grove on Saturday, September 30. The game is being held at a neutral venue due to the vast distance between the two schools. The Bulldogs play their final away game at Westran on October 6. They return home to host Fayette and Scotland County for the final two games of the regular season.

“We just have to put it together for four quarters, which has been our problem. Thankfully we’ve got a little bit more time to get it done before districts,” Claas said.


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