Despite battling to the bitter end on an unseasonably frigid evening at Chester Ray Stadium, Marceline was unable to turn the tide after a disastrous middle of the first half. After allowing the first 25 points of the game, the Tigers fell to Penney on Friday night, 31-26.
The Tigers' season ends 10-2 with a home loss in the district championship for the second straight year. Penney advances to 9-3.
"This game was all about momentum," Penney coach Caleb Obert said. "The team that had momentum in their favor was the team that was performing better throughout the second half. We were lucky to get it early, and with a short field, we were able to put some points up. We knew that with their high-powered offense, they'd find a way to get back into this football game."
Penney's highly-esteemed sophomore running back Sawyer Morrow proved early on that he was as-advertised. On Penney's second drive of the game, Morrow, aided by a physically imposing and talented offensive line, mowed his way down the field, constantly gaining chunk yardage. Morrow scored his first of three touchdowns from two yards out with 3:40 remaining in the first quarter.
In the blink of an eye, Penney built that lead to 19 points.
On both of Marceline's two ensuing possessions, quarterback Chase Billups threw interceptions gifting the Hornets with phenomenal field position. Penney began those two drives at Marceline's 22 and 13 yard lines, respectively, and had little trouble punching it into the end zone.
Billups threw four interceptions on the evening, and the Tigers had six turnovers in total. During a stretch in the first half, the Tigers ended four consecutive drives with a turnover. Penney turned the ball over three times.
"It just didn't go our way tonight," Marceline head coach Mark Ross said. "Some of those turnovers were uncharacteristic, and the weather definitely played a factor in that. I was maybe a little too aggressive at times, and that's just kind of the way it went."
After Morrow scored on a 24-yard rush with 1:41 remaining in the first half, the Tigers finally shook the cobwebs and seized some momentum. On the very next play from scrimmage, junior running back Cullen Bruner broke free for a 75-yard touchdown rush to get the Tigers back within three scores. He finished with 170 yards rushing on 18 carries.
A Penney fumble just moments later gave the Tigers excellent field position with little time remaining in the second quarter. On the final play before the intermission, Billups hooked up with Clayton Stallo around the 10. Stallo broke a tackle and entered the end zone, and trailing by just 11, Marceline took some serious momentum into the locker room.
"That was huge for us going into the half, we gave our guys some life and we were able to focus on what we wanted to do in the second half," Ross said. "Our guys know that if we keep following our assignments, good things will happen."
Billups showed his elusive speed on the Tigers' second possession of the second half to cut the Marceline deficit to just five. The senior record-holder in nearly all Marceline passing categories fooled the entire defense on a read option, keeping it instead of handing it off and rushing 57 yards down to the Penney 3. He scored on a keeper on the next play.
Penney scored early in the fourth to make it 31-20, and with time dwindling, another huge play gave the Marceline faithful a glimmer of hope.
With under seven minutes remaining, the Tigers started a drive on their own 8. A bomb from Billups to Desmond Harrison took the Tigers from their own 46 to just outside of the goal line, and with 4:46 remaining in the game, Bruner's 1-yard rushing touchdown brought the Tigers back within one score once again.
They still had all three timeouts.
Some wise clock management gave the Tigers the ball back on their own 33 with 2:13 remaining and one time out to play with. A costly sack forced the Tigers into a 4th & 19 situation, and a desperation heave intended for Stallo was broken up.
All Penney had to do from there was kneel the football three times and watch the clock dwindle.
Marceline finished with 346 yards of offense to Penney's 275.
"We're proud of the way those boys continued to fight," Ross said. "It says a lot about them. We just came up a little short. That's something we want some of those younger guys to keep in mind for next year.
"Our 16 seniors are going to be very tough to replace, but we've got some really good pieces. We're still excited about the future of the program."