Comeback triumph, with Josh Kille's record-tying winning touchdown coming with 20 seconds left, leaves CHS, Smithville, St. Joseph: Lafayette in first-place tie in Midland Empire Conference with one game left in 2017 regular season
By PAUL STURM, C-T Sports Editor
SMITHVILLE, Mo. — A bit too aggressive in some ways in the first half, when it allowed just over 200 yards and the only touchdown to that juncture, the Chillicothe (Mo.) HS football Hornets’ defense dialed it back a notch after intermission and choked off the Smithville Warriors’ strong ground game on only 39 yards the last 24 minutes, laying the groundwork for a 14-7 come-from-behind victory which leaves the 2017 Midland Empire Conference title chase in a 3-ways tie with one regular-season game remaining.
With the defense and the placekicking and punting of Jack Willard allowing it to establish good field position more and more often, Chillicothe tied the game 7-7 late in the third quarter when Josh Kille powered over from three yards away to cap an 11-plays, 60-yards drive.
It then won it dramatically with a 12-plays, 68-yards push which began with 4:28 to play in regulation time and ended on J. Kille’s CHS-record-tying 5-yards blast off the right side on a first-and-goal play with 20 ticks left on the clock.
“Really proud of the kids and the way they handled the second half,” reflected Phil Willard, CHS head coach.
“In the first half, we moved the ball and got down in scoring position and, unfortunately, didn’t get it in, but I just told our kids to ‘persevere, we’re in this thing,’ and they just hung right in there and did a great job.”
The CHS triumph moved it back into first place in the MEC at 5-1, a mark shared now with Smithville and St. Joseph: Lafayette. All three are 7-1 overall now, too, as the Hornets spoiled Smithville’s chances of an undefeated season and undisputed conference crown in its last year in the league. SHS will join a division of the Kansas City area’s Suburban League in 2018-19 after about 20 years in the MEC.
Next Friday, Chillicothe will host 2-6, but improving, St. Joseph: Benton, Smithville will go to winless Cameron, and Lafayette will travel to Maryville to try to tie down at least a share of the 2017 conference crown.
Mathematically, 6-times defending champion Maryville also remains alive in the title race after slipping by Savannah in its week eight game Friday. If MHS defeats Lafayette in its last regular-season game and both Chillicothe and Smithville are dealt stunning upset losses, those four clubs all would finish league action 5-2 and quad-champions.
More likely is that the crown will be carved up two or three ways, but a solo champion also still is a possibility, though unlikely.
Friday’s Chillicothe victory also appears to have clinched for it the top seeding for the approaching Class 3 District 16 playoffs. That distinction carries with it the right to play at home throughout the 3-rounds district tournament.
Chillicothe will host Cameron in two weeks to begin its postseason action. A victory then would put it against the winner of the game between the fourth and fifth seeds, again at Jerry Litton Memorial Stadium II. This year’s Hornets are trying to reach the district finals for the first time under the current playoffs system, which has been in use for about a half-dozen years.
Chillicothe’s comeback victory over the host SHS Warriors flew by, finishing barely after 9 p.m.
That was because there were limited stoppages of the clock with both sides most often running the ball between the hashmarks, largely eliminating the clock halting when a ballcarrier went out of bounds. Although the teams did end up combining for 35 passing attempts, only 20 went incomplete – four of those in the last 20 seconds after Chillicothe’s go-ahead score – and stopped the clock.
From the time SHS quarterback Kellen Simoncic capped a marathon, 16-plays, 8:22 march that went 97 yards with a 9-yards touchdown pass to Garrett Miller with 1:29 left in the opening half until J. Kille cracked in from the SHS 3 with 2:41 remaining in the third quarter, the rapidity with which time was disappearing from the clock was a worry to Chillicothe and its fans.
However, once J. Willard successfully booted the extra point to knot the score at 7-7, the flying time only boosted the likelihood of the evenly-matched teams playing overtime, rather than being an advantage for one squad or the other.
Following J. Kille’s third-period score, a J. Willard kick forced Smithville’s offense to set up shop at its own 20 for a third time in three possessions in the stanza. Twice, the 2016 All-State punter pounded kickoffs into the end zone; the other time, his angled punt was ruled to have crossed the goal line before bouncing out of bounds.
For a third-consecutive time, the Warriors went 3-and-out and punted. The short punt into the wind gave CHS the ball at the Smithville 42, but the Hornets moved the yardsticks only once before J. Willard softly sent a punt down to the SHS 3.
“Getting the field position we got in the second half was big,” coach Willard confirmed.
A 17-yards run by sophomore sensation Isaac Miller – the Warriors’ only second-half play to generate double-digits yardage – immediately got the hosts away from their own goal line.
They earned a second-straight first down with a 3-yards run on third-and-2, but still were only at their own 31. When the next three snaps gained only one total yard, it was punt time again.
Chillicothe went 3-and-out and Smithville got the ball back at its 31 with 6:27 to go in the fourth period. However, the Warriors, facing a fourth-and-1 after a third-and-2 run was stopped short, were called for their first penalty of the game – possibly a substitution infraction – when there was confusion as to whether it would try to convert on fourth-and-1 at their own 40.
The 5-yards markoff made it a clear punting situation and Chillicothe took possession at its 32 with 4:28 on the clock.
Soon facing a third-and-9, the Hornets called a pass play. As the throw by J. Willard sailed down the middle toward and past Brett Shaffer on a crossing route, a downfield official’s penalty flag came out, ruling pass interference on the defense. The 15-yards infraction pushed the ball to near midfield and gave Chillicothe a fresh set of downs and a spark.
The Hornets seized on the break, their blockers up front helping J. Kille slash off the right side for 12 yards and another first down to the SHS 40.
If Chillicothe could move the yardsticks just once more, it might be within J. Willard’s field-goal range, although the kick would be into a wind of an estimated 10 miles per hour.
It got the conversion it needed on a perfectly-executed buttonhook-route completion from J. Willard to Shaffer that gained 10 yards to the 26 on third-and-6.
With the game clock now below two minutes, the Hornets at least might have a chance to win with a last-minute kick, if they didn’t get something better.
Thanks to their relentless blocking, strong running, and another well-executed play, they got that better result.
Three runs got the ball to the 16 – barely, on perhaps a generous forward-progress spot on the third carry – to provide another first down at the 16.
Now well within J. Willard’s range, even against the wind. Chillicothe opted to see if it could get six or seven points, rather than three. It did.
From the 16, a short-side pitch sweep with Shaffer was very well blocked and sprung him on an angle upfield to the SHS 5, where he was taken out of bounds with about 25 seconds left.
With first-and-goal and Smithville owning only two more timeouts, CHS’ coaches had the option of playing for the would-be winning field goal while running out the clock by safely taking a knee a couple of times while maneuvering the ball to the middle of the field.
Instead, the first-down play call was for a straight-ahead J. Kille run behind the right side of the line. The power-running senior got a nice seam and blasted through a couple of arm-tackle attempts to cross the Smithville goal line standing up for a 13-7 Chillicothe lead with exactly 20 seconds to go. The rushing score was his 25th of the year, matching David Macoubrie's 1978 single-season CHS record
After J. Willard’s 28th successful extra-point kick in 34 tries this year made it 14-7, Smithville’s offense did have one last, desperate chance for a miracle.
When the kickoff landed just out of bounds at around the SHS 10, the illegal kick was penalized, giving the Warriors the ball at their 35, still with 20 ticks on the clock.
A completion on the first play gained nine yards, but the tackle was made in-bounds, forcing Smithville to use its second timeout with 14 seconds remaining.
Somehow on the next play, even though Simoncic dropped back several steps after taking the snap under center, hesitating for a count, and then launching a high, deep pass about 30 yards downfield where Shaffer swatted it away incomplete, only 2.2 seconds elapsed on the game clock.
Another incompletion followed on a shorter route, leaving Smithville with a fourth-and-1 with about eight seconds still on the clock. A run gained two yards to sustain the possession, but left less than five seconds showing.
An incompletion on a curl route about 20 yards downfield – a play possibly designed to be a “hook-and-ladder” play in which the receiver would have lateraled the ball away after catching it, left a second on the clock and time for one last play – barring a penalty on the CHS defense.
With seven Hornets dropping about 20 yards or farther downfield at the snap, the Smithville quarterback launched a throw far downfield, but still shy of the CHS goal line. It again was broken up by free safety Shaffer and, with no flags having been throw, Chillicothe had its win and renewed grasp on first place in the conference standings.
After rushing for 107 first-half yards on 16 carries and having entered the game reportedly with about 1,600 yards in the first seven games, I. Miller gained only 38 more on 14 second-half totes. Twelve of his post-intermission carries netted three yards or less.
“Our defense is probably the big story,” coach Willard asserted in his post-game remarks, “because they did a tremendous job of shutting down an outstanding running back.
“… Our defense played tremendously well.”
The Chillicothe boss, in his 20th season at the helm, felt his team’s experience with rallying in each of the prior two games – which they split – was a factor in his club’s eventual success at Smithville.
“It’s great to see our kids handle some adversity again,” he remarked. “We’ve handled it two or three times now. That’s just a sign of some mature kids that are never going to give up.”
Statistically, even with the CHS defense’s far-stingier play after halftime, the Hornets still were out-gained 262-212 and had the only turnover of the game – an interception by Jacob Perez at his own 5 in the first quarter.
SHS' I. Miller gained 145 yards on 30 carries.
“We’ll enjoy this one for a little bit,” coach Willard stated, “but we’ve got a lot of work to do because they’ve got some tremendous athletes at Benton.”