The Oneonta City Stallions had little reason to play it safe Saturday at Hartwick College.
Trailing by 13 points late in the fourth quarter, the Stallions sandwiched two touchdowns around a gift safety for a 15-point rally and a 22-20 Northeastern Football Alliance victory over the visiting Utica Yard Dawgs.
"My heart can't take much more of this," Stallions co-owner Tom Terry joked Sunday. "It was an amazing finish. That's a game you can't win. We won, but that's a game you can't win. We had no shot."
Oneonta City faced a 20-7 deficit with 6 minutes, 39 seconds left but pulled to 20-13 when quarterback Noble Champen capped a 70-yard, no-huddle touchdown drive with an 18-yard run. Jimmy Kazalski's second extra point followed to make it 20-14, but the Stallions had neither the time nor the ball to do much else.
"Utica was inside its 1-yard line and the quarterback took the snap and heaved the ball as far as he could down the field," said Terry, whose team drew 350 fans Saturday. "Since there were no receivers, it was an automatic safety."
The Yard Dawgs' miscue cut their advantage to 20-16 and put the ball back into the hands of the Stallions with 18.4 seconds left.
Terry said his team ran out of bounds on the kickoff return before Champen threw consecutive incomplete passes, leaving Oneonta City with 4 seconds and one last shot to pull off a stunner.
Champen then took the final snap and scrambled long enough to find Ahmed Hassanien for a 50-yard TD pass that gave the Stallions to a 7-1 record atop the NFA's East A Division and their first playoff berth in franchise history.
"They're the only team that beat us this year," Terry said, referring to the Stallions' 14-7 season-opening loss at Utica (3-5). "That was their playoff game last night. They gave us more than we could handle.
"We're tough in the fourth quarter," he continued. "Nobody's close to us in terms of points scored in the fourth quarter. Every team we've been close against, we've beat up in the fourth quarter. I think it has to do with our depth and youth. We always start fast, then we're sluggish for the second and third quarters, then we come on like gangbusters in the fourth quarter."
Champen hit Hassanien for a 9-yard TD pass in the first quarter, leading to a 7-all tie at halftime. The Stallions gave up 13 points to Utica in the third quarter to set up the frantic fourth.
Champen finished with 175 passing yards and 108 on the ground for Oneonta City, which received 91 receiving yards on four catches by Hassanien and 53 rushing yards from Zach Blocker.
Cubby Ruff and Jeremy Polemus each had five tackles and three assists to pace the defense of the Stallions, who can clinch the East A Division title and a first-round bye for the NFA playoffs by winning one of their last two games.
Terry said the top three teams in the East A Division and the top three in the West A Division will qualify for the postseason. The Nos. 2 and 3 seeds in the East will meet in the first round, as will the same seeds in the West. The top seeds in each division will have byes.
The East playoff winner then will meet the West playoff champion in a crossover for the NFA title.
Terry said Troy stands second in the East at 6-2, followed by the Glove Cities Colonials at 4-4. Should Oneonta City and three-time defending NFA champion Troy tie for the East title, the Stallions would hold the tiebreaker based on a 2-0 record against the Fighting Irish this season.
The Stallions, who went 5-0 at Wright Stadium this season, visit Glove Cities at 7 p.m. this Saturday at Knox Field in Johnstown. Oneonta City closes its regular season at the Finger Lakes Impact on Aug. 10.