By PAUL DELANEY
They had a solid start and finish.
But it was the soft middle of their game that did in the Medical Lake Cardinals last Friday in a 33-28 Homecoming/Hall-of-Fame football loss to Chewelah at Holliday Field.
The loss was Medical Lake’s first of the season giving the Cardinals a 2-1 Northeast A League record and 5-1 overall. The Cougars improved to 3-0 in NEA play and 5-1 overall.
Medical Lake took the opening kickoff, going 68 yards, scoring on Micah Tappero’s 5-yard run with 7:41 on the clock. The key play came right before the touchdown when Tappero converted a fourth and one from the 7.
“I’m really happy with how we shoved the ball down their throats on that first drive,” Medical Lake head coach Wes Hobbs said.
Chewelah was much more efficient in tying the contest with quarterback Derek Smith taking the ball 70 yards down the right sideline to tie it at 7-7.
“We’ve got the guy, we’ve got him covered three on two and somehow we let him out of there and he goes 70 yards.”
The Cougars coughed up the ball on their next series after just two plays. Seth Hansen’s recovery with 4:49 to play in the opening quarter led to Tappero’s second touchdown for a 14-7 ML lead with 3:08 left in the opening quarter.
The next Chewelah drive would be longer as the Cougars took five plays to go 60 yards for a score on a 36-yard run from Dustin Crowell and Smith’s run for a 2-points. That gave Chewelah a 15-14 lead, an advantage they would never give up.
Medical Lake got the ball back to open the second quarter but didn’t keep it long as Smith, who also anchors the defensive backfield for Chewelah, tipped an Adam Paulson pass and then intercepted the ball.
Despite a block in the back penalty on the return that set them back 10 yards, Chewelah took just eight plays – the last a conversion on a fourth-and-eight from the Medical Lake 28 – to score on a 28-yard pass from Smith with 7:55 to go in the half. The play took advantage of a total collapse of coverage in the secondary as McKenzie Miller found himself completely behind the Cardinals’ secondary and waited for Smith’s ball to reach him.
“I just don’t know what we were thinking,” Hobbs said. “They didn’t do anything special.”
Medical Lake’s next drive started on a positive note with the Cardinals getting the benefit of a Cougar pass interference call that moved the ball to midfield.
But things went in reverse from there as Tappero lost a yard and Paulson was sacked for a loss of six more setting up a third and 17 at their own 43. When Austin Garza slipped on his route, Chewelah’s Smith was there to intercept Paulson’s pass.
Six plays later, another blown coverage, this time at least not as bad, let Crowell score his second touchdown of the game with 2:44 remaining in the half for the Cougars’ 20th straight points and a 27-14 lead on the 22-yard play. The 2-point conversion failed.
The Cardinals’ next possession, which began at their own 16, nearly resulted in more disaster when consecutive losses - the biggest a 12-yard loss on a sack to Paulson - nearly resulted in a safety. But an excellent Paulson punt got a good Cardinal roll and ML was out of trouble as the half came to a close.
That allowed for a much-needed break and reassessment of defensive strategy.
“It wasn’t a rant and rave (halftime),” Hobbs said. “We had some things we had to fix to get back in this thing.”
Hobbs reminded his players Chewelah had trouble converting extra points, just like Medical Lake did. “I said to them, here’s the skinny, we do this, this and this and we’ll beat them 34-33; I almost predicted the score,” Hobbs said.
The tweaks, whatever they were, helped and the improvement was immediately obvious as on their first two series, the Cougars were forced to punt and then Steven Velasquez intercepted Smith on the first play of Chewelah’s next possession.
The Cards rode the running of Tappero most of the way through a 43-yard drive that concluded as Kasey Kelly and Velasquez briefly battled for Paulson’s pass over the middle with the latter making the 18-yard catch on a fourth down play. That cut the lead to 27-20 with 5:16 to go in the third after Hansen’s kick failed. Tappero had 100 yards on 20 carries.
Keyed by a critical third-down and 5 conversion by Smith that netted 32 yards on their next series, the Cougars answered Medical Lake’s touchdown two minutes later on Caleb Weibe’s 11-yard run for a 33-20 lead.
As the fourth quarter began, the teams traded possessions that each ended in failed fourth down conversions. Medical Lake made the best of its next drive, however, as Velasquez scored both the touchdown at 6:29, as well as the 2-point conversion on a run to cut the Chewelah lead to 33-28.
Logan Drinkard’s sack on Smith in the next Chewelah possession was crucial to stopping the Cougars and giving Medical Lake another chance. But Paulson’s pass was intercepted and the Cougars would run the clock down to just 3 seconds before giving the ball back to the Cardinals at their own 10.
Next up for the Cardinals is 7 p.m. Friday night in Kettle Falls. “This is a test for us, we’ve to get back up,” Hobbs said of the contest against the Bulldogs, winless at 0-3 in the NEA and 0-5 overall.
Paul Delaney can be reached at email@example.com.