BINGHAMTON — There’s no disputing Unatego’s football team finished 22 yards short of a go-ahead touchdown on the game’s final play.
When Tyler Butler’s final pass was batted away by Tioga’s Ryan Vergason on the game’s final play, Unatego left the field on the wrong end of a 26-21 outcome in a Section Four Class D semifinal Saturday at Binghamton Alumni Stadium.
But from the Spartans’ viewpoint, an official’s whistle will be disputed and it played a decisive role as the Spartans’ rally from deficits of 20-0 and 26-7 fell just short.
The play that those from Otego and Unadilla likely will talk — rather, complain — about for some time happened early in the third quarter.
Facing a 19-point deficit, the Spartans went to a play they’ve called so many times this season. With Butler in his customary shotgun position and backfield mate David VanAlstine lined up about a yard to his left, Butler received the snap, put the ball in VanAlstine’s stomach as both headed right. When defenders converged on VanAlstine, Butler pulled the ball back and started running free up the right sideline. But when VanAlstine was tackled, the whistle blew.
An official apparently thought VanAlstine had the ball.
Instead, it was in Butler’s possession running free along the right sideline for what would have almost certainly resulted in a 53-yard touchdown run.
But the Spartans (6-3) settled for a 1-yard gain by VanAlstine.
“The defensive end flew out, so David and I took it to the next level,” Butler said. “The linebacker moved up and hit David, and I ripped the ball out and took it down the sideline. They thought David was down … dumb call.
“I was furious,” he continued. “I went right after the ref. It was a terrible call — a terrible, terrible call. That’s a game-changer.”
Spartans coach Frank Microni said it was especially puzzling because before the game, the official’s asked if Unatego runs anything out of the ordinary.
“I said we run option, so the ball may not be where you think it is, so don’t blow the whistle,” Microni said of his chat before the game. “Of course, they blew a touchdown dead. It’s an honest mistake. I’m not saying they were pulling for anybody. It didn’t benefit us, that’s for sure.”
Had the touchdown counted, it would have made the score 26-13, with Josh Feyerabend’s extra point pending.
Instead, Unatego punted three plays later.
It didn’t seem as if the play would have a big impact until Unatego rallied behind a 5-yard touchdown run by VanAlstine late in the third quarter and an 11-yard touchdown reception by Jon Wingate with 7 minutes, 3 seconds left in the fourth quarter. Feyerabend’s third PAT, after Wingate’s touchdown made it 26-21.
“Our kids have guts,” Microni said. “That’s all there is to it. They battled. They never believed they were out of it. They won the game, I thought. But it’s like life, it’s not fair. The bottom line is they battled and I’m proud of each and every one of them.”
The rally started earnest after the Spartans’ Derek Liner ripped the ball free from Tioga running back Tyler Spires late in the third quarter and returned it 34 yards to the Tigers’ 8.
“The momentum changed,” Microni said of Liner’s play. “It helped us get back in the ballgame.”
VanAlstine, stymied for most of the day by a hard-hitting and active Tioga defense, scored around the right end from 5 yards two plays later and Feyerabend’s PAT made it 26-14 with 1:41 left in the third quarter.
Midway through the fourth quarter, Tioga lined up in punt formation from its 47, but the center snap sailed over punter Carter Jackson. Jackson tracked it down at the 16 for a 31-yard loss.
Then on fourth-and-5 from the 11, Butler looked to pass, bought some time by stepping into the pocket before hitting Wingate in the left side of the end zone. Suddenly, Unatego’s deficit was five points.
“They closed the right side (of the line), so I stepped up and found space,” said Butler, who completed 9 of 15 passes for 125 yards and two touchdowns. “I saw Johnny Wingate break his route off and we hit it.”
But then Tioga (8-1), as it had for most of the day, moved the ball on the ground behind the massive right side of its line. Carter, a 258-pound junior guard, Dylan Babcock, a 336-pound tackle and Josh Moore, a 207-pound tight end, carved space for Tigers backs.
The biggest beneficiary was Jesse Manuel, who carried 34 times for 158 yards — almost all of it to the right side.
“We’ve been playing together for 5-6 years,” said Jackson, who hit the winning field goal in Tioga’s 19-18 win over Walton in last year’s Section Four Class D final. “We love being next to each other and we just pound everybody.”
The Tigers ran off the next 15 plays, soaking all but 12.9 seconds off the clock while moving from their 22 to Unatego’s 32 and forcing the Spartans to use all three of their timeouts. The drive included a 5-yard run by Spires (20 carries for 133 yards) on fourth-and-1 from Tioga’s 31.
“They’re pretty physical over there (the right side),” Microni said. “We knew we would have a tough time stopping them. We thought we could slow them down and get a couple of turnovers.”
But even with 12.9 seconds left, Unatego gave itself a chance. Following a 5-yard offsides penalty that moved the ball to the Spartans’ 36, Butler threw a perfect pass to VanAlstine on the right side of the field. The play covered 42 yards before VanAlstine was forced out of bounds at the Tigers’ 22 with 5.1 seconds left.
The Spartans lined up in a similar formation for the final play, with three receivers to the right and VanAlstine moving in motion behind them. Butler rolled right and tried to throw back to his left to Wingate, but Vergason swatted it away at the 2.
“We stepped up all the way across the board,” senior Butler said of Unatego’s comeback. “We started airing it out more and we executed much better.”
Through one half of play, Tioga dominated play, generating 250 yards of offense, including 230 on the ground.
Their opening possession was capped by a Vergason-to-Cleaven Staples 20-yard touchdown pass near the right sideline. Spires’ two-point run made it 8-0.
Early in the second quarter, Spires capped an 85-yard drive with a 26-yard scoring run up the middle to make it 14-0.
Then Jackson took the ball from VanAlstine and returned the fumble to Unatego’s 1 midway through the second quarter. Manuel scored on the next play as the Tigers’ lead ballooned to 20-0.
Unatego finally scored 2:13 before halftime on a 49-yard pass from Butler to Wingate. Butler rolled left and appeared to have running room but instead launched a pass that traveled about 50 yards. Wingate caught it over a defender while backpedaling into the end zone.
On its first possession of the second half, Tioga drove 62 yards in seven plays, with Brad Jump accounting for the final 35. Jump, who finished with 86 rushing yards, burst through a hole in the center, made a spin move 10 yards downfield and continued into the end zone. It gave the Tigers a 26-7 lead.
“We kind of grew up together,” third-year coach Microni said of his 14 seniors. “A lot of our seniors played when we only one win three years ago. I’m going to miss coaching those guys. There isn’t a head case among them and I’m going to miss them. It was a special year. I wish it was still going. I really do.”
Rob Centorani can be reached at email@example.com or 607-432-1000, ext. 209.