After a disappointing end to the 2012 season, the Watertown-Mayer football team is living by a simple mantra this year.
On Friday night, though, against the No. 3 team in the state (AAA), the Royals had every reason not to finish.
After seeing a 27-6 lead shrink to a single touchdown in a matter of minutes early in the fourth quarter, the Royals were reeling. Tri City United was finally starting to look like one of the state’s top teams, and perhaps a little doubt was starting to set in on the Royals sideline.
Moments later, when an apparent inadvertent whistle that nobody seemed to hear erased what should have been a game-clinching, 47-yard touchdown run for the Royals, the doubt only seemed to grow.
But despite all the reasons the Royals could have caved on Friday night, they never did. A Watertown-Mayer defense decimated by injuries twice came up with defensive stops in the final 6 minutes to keep Tri City United out of the end zone as the Royals held on for a 27-20 upset on homecoming.
“Luke Sandquist and I called a group huddle and reiterated what Coach Johnson always tells us,” said senior Jesse Bushman, whose 82-yard touchdown run on the first play of the fourth quarter proved to be the difference. “We have to fight through adversity no matter what gets thrown at us. I felt like we were able to keep fighting through it and pull off the win.”
After taking a 7-6 lead into halftime, Watertown-Mayer’s Tyler Nelson sent the home crowd into a frenzy when he returned the second-half kickoff 75 yards for a touchdown. Late in the quarter, Aaron Sweeney intercepted a pass at the Royals 45-yard-line and returned it all the way to the TCU 18, setting up an eventual 1-yard run from quarterback Brett Johnson.
That gave the Royals a 20-6 lead, and just minutes later, on the first play of the fourth quarter, Bushman’s touchdown sprint down the left sideline seemed to put the game out of reach.
But that’s when the Titans came to life. Physically outmuscled for most of the night by a Watertown-Mayer team that was playing without several key starters, Tri City United finally started to exert some control.
It took TCU just five plays to go 74 yards, with John Christian finding paydirt from 17 yards out to cut the Watertown-Mayer lead to 27-13 with 10:45 left to play.
Then, after forcing a Royals three-and-out and a punt from their own end zone, TCU took over at Watertown-Mayer’s 26-yard-line, and needed just two plays for Christian to score again from 26 yards out, cutting the Watertown-Mayer lead to 27-20 with 8:17 still to play.
In desperate need of spark, Ryne Alger gave it to the Royals. He caught the ensuing kickoff at the 1-yard-line, and after nearly slipping down at the goal line, he ended up returning the kick all the way to the TCU 48-yard-line.
On the very next play, what seemed to be a 48-yard Johnson touchdown run on a read-option keeper had the Royals and their fans sensing victory once again. But, only after the play was over did the Royals learn of an apparent inadvertent whistle during the play. The Titans’ defense had dragged down the Royals’ running back in the backfield thinking he had the ball, and the referee, also confused, apparently blew his whistle.
Nobody seemed to hear the whistle, and it seemed to have little impact on the play, as the TCU defense pursued Johnson all the way to the end zone. Still, the rules dictated a dead ball must be called and the ball brought back to the original line of scrimmage.
The Royals got a first down on a personal foul on the next play, moving the ball to TCU’s 30-yard line, but failed to pick up another first down, giving the ball back to the Titans. The Titans moved all the way to the Royals’ 23-yard-line, where they had a first down before giving the ball back to Watertown-Mayer on a fumble.
Watertown-Mayer went three-and-out, but the ensuing TCU drive stalled at midfield to finally give Watertown-Mayer the win.
“I’m just so proud of our kids about overcoming all the different adversities that happened in this football game,” Watertown-Mayer coach Craig Johnson said. “It would have been easy to say, “Oh, we got a bad call against us, and they’re on a roll, and here it goes. But they didn’t. They figured out a way to win.”
Both defenses dominated early, as each team went two possessions before even picking up a first down. TCU finally got one on a 10-yard carry by Pat Lloyd, but fumbled two plays later.
Then, on third-and-three for the Royals, Johnson hooked up with Jack Nolan on a 52-yard pass play down to the TCU 1-yard-line, and Cole Durand cleaned up with a short touchdown run.
TCU responded on its very next drive, though, with a 10-play, 58-yard touchdown drive capped by a 2-yard run by Christian early in the second quarter. Both teams remained scoreless the rest of the half.
“At halftime I talked about the opportunity at hand in a 7-6 game,” Craig Johnson said. “I said, ‘We get the ball first, so let’s make something of it. Make memories right now, and remember this homecoming game for the rest of your life.’”
Nelson apparently took his coach’s words to heart, returning the second-half kickoff for a touchdown on a play that neither the Royals nor their fans will soon forget. The touchdown seemed to be a punch to the gut for TCU, as the Royals largely dominated the third quarter.
TCU’s size and strength were supposed to a mismatch in favor of the Titans, especially against a Watertown-Mayer team playing without several starters. Senior lineman Jon Ernst is out for the season, and senior linebackers Logan Cooper and Mike Hetrick also missed the game with injuries. Bryce Kallenbach, a freshman defensive tackle who has seen extensive playing time as well, also is out for the rest of the season.
Despite all those injuries, the Royals’ surprising physical play on defense and ability to shut down the Titans’ running game forced TCU to try to move the ball through the air, but the Titans’ passing attack was no match for the Royals, either. Superb pass coverage in the secondary all night led to three interceptions for the Royals, and what appeared to be a fourth until it was ruled to have hit the ground.
“That’s been kind of our goal, is to make Watertown kids a little more physical,” Craig Johnson said. “I can honestly say Watertown kids are great kids. They’re nice, they’re polite, and I have to keep telling them, it’s OK to be rough and tough between the stripes. I thought we played as physical of a game as we have since I’ve been the coach.”
Bushman, who intercepted a pass late in the second quarter to help preserve his team’s halftime lead, said his team’s ability to slow down TCU’s high-powered offense boiled down to discipline.
“We just really needed to rally to the ball on the strong side, and make sure we had a couple guys staying home,” he said.
This year’s game had a familiar feel for both teams, as they met last year for TCU’s homecoming. Both teams entered that game with 5-1 records, but the Royals routed the Titans, 35-7.
“Last year we beat them 35-7, and we knew it was kind of the same team,” Brett Johnson said. “We had to be physical and pretty much dominate each side of the ball to win the game, and that’s what we did.”
Bushman finished with a team-high 135 yards on 10 carries, and Johnson had 47 yards on 16 carries. Durand added 32 yards on the ground. Johnson completed only 2-of-9 passes with an interception, but the 52-yard completion to Nolan was huge in the first half.
Watertown-Mayer now moves to 5-1 overall and 4-1 in the Minnesota River Conference, and TCU falls to the same. Belle Plaine still leads the conference with a 5-0 mark in league play, but an obvious path to a share of the title remains in play for the Royals. TCU will host Belle Plaine in the final week, and a win for the Titans could open the door for the Royals, provided they take care of business the next two weeks.
That certainly won’t be easy, though. Mayer Lutheran and Jordan both come into this week’s action with 4-2 records overall and 3-2 marks in the MRC.
Royals 27, TCU 20
TCU 0 6 0 14 20
WM 7 0 13 7 27
WM - Cole Durand 1 run (Jesse Bushman kick)
TCU – John Christian 2 run (kick blocked)
WM – Tyler Nelson 75 kick return (Bushman kick)
WM – Brett Johnson 1 run (kick blocked)
WM – Bushman 82 run (Bushman kick)
TCU – Christian 17 run (Lopez kick)
TCU – Christian 26 run (Lopez kick)
Passing: WM – Johnson 2-9-1-69; TCU – Ted Christian 8-24-3-124
Rushing: WM – Bushman 10-135, TD; Johnson 16-57, TD; Durand 12-32, TD; Jordan Berrios 2-5; TCU – John Christian 18-129, 3 TD
Receiving: WM – Jack Nolan 1-52, Luke Sandquist 1-17; TCU - Pat Lloyd 2-52
Tackles: WM – Andrew Ziegenhagen 9, Ryne Alger 7, Nick Parker 7, Trae Berhow 6, Bushman 6, Nate Zellman 5, Sandquist 5, Cam Killian 3, Aaron Sweeney 2, Hunter Hulley 2, Bryce Duske 1, Matt Pysick 1, Cody Wagner 1, Nelson 1
TFL: WM – Zellman 1
INT: WM – Alger, Sweeney, Bushman
FR: Ziegenhagen, Hulley