With Verona clinging to a three-point lead in the final seconds, Madison Memorial didn’t hesitate about going for a game-winning touchdown on a sloshy and muddy field after marching to the Wildcats’ 4-yard line.
Verona senior linebacker Ben Cramer and senior defensive back Xavier Howard hit Memorial running back Kabaris Vasser at the goal line, but Vasser got a push from his offensive line and used second effort to power in for the game-winning score as time expired, stunning Verona 27-24 Friday night at Mansfield Stadium.
“We thought we had him stopped and he (Vasser) turned around and reached in,” Cramer said. “They out-hearted us on that play. It hurts. I’m confident that we will bounce back.”
The Spartans charged onto the field after finishing a rally from a 17-point second-half deficit. It was the second straight week Verona (4-2, 4-2 Big Eight Conference) couldn’t close out a second-half lead. Last week, the Wildcats led Sun Prairie by seven points last week before the Cardinals came back to win, 27-21.
“We had a chance to put them away and we didn’t do it,” Verona coach Dave Richardson said. “It’s a game we should have had and in the second half, I got too conservative and I allowed (Memorial) to get back in the game. We are a good team that has lost two tough games. We will be a tough out in the playoffs.”
With the win, Madison Memorial, ranked sixth in the large schools Associated Press state poll, improved to 6-0 overall and 6-0 in the Big Eight.
Richardson said he had no doubt the Spartans would go for it on fourth down instead of attempting a potential game-tying field goal.
“They had the momentum, why wouldn’t you,” Richardson said. “He’s (Vasser) a nice running back. It came down to that little extra surge he had. It’s an incredible disappointment. I really feel bad for our kids because they have worked hard.”
The Wildcats’ defense forced four turnovers (three fumbles and an interception by Jake Poller), and used a mix of short passes to keep the Spartans off balance early, marching 80 yards in 10 plays on their first drive that culminated in junior Graham Stier’s 25-yard touchdown run. Senior quarterback Adam Bekx completed five passes 48 yards to set up the score.
On the next drive, Vasser broke several tackles on a 27-yard run, but fumbled into the end zone and Verona senior Kyle Walton recovering for a touchback.
The Spartans had a strong drive going in the second quarter, but Cramer recovered a Marshall fumble at the Wildcats’ 5. The offense capitalized with a 95-yard touchdown drive, with Jackson Acker scoring on a 1-yard plunge into the end zone. Acker rushed for 113 yards on 25 carries.
Memorial senior quarterback Jason Ceniti connected with LeKwan Lewis on a 23-yard touchdown pass to cut the Wildcats’ lead to 14-7 with 59 seconds left in the second quarter.
Verona answered right back, though, as Bekx found fellow senior Aubrey Dawkins for a 36-yard touchdown pass, and Verona freshman Mason Armstrong later booted a 28-yard field goal right before halftime to increase the lead to 24-7.
Bekx completed 11 of 17 passes for 136 yards. Dawkins had four receptions for 59 yards, and Stier had three catches for 43 yards.
The Spartans bottled up the Wildcats’ running game in the second half, though, turning the momentum.
“I don’t think we came out with the same energy in the second half,” Acker said. “We felt we won the game in the first half and didn’t finish it out.”
Marshall scored a 2-yard touchdown run with 10:01 left in the third quarter to cut the Wildcats’ lead to 24-14.
Later, Memorial stopped Acker on fourth-and-2 with a little more than eight minutes to go in the game, leading to Vasser’s 4-yard touchdown run that sliced Verona’s lead to 24-21 with 4:02 to go, setting the stage for their last-second score.
“I just felt like Jackson behind our line is a solid situation, but they made plays and started taking things away,” Richardson said. “I just didn’t respond as well as I should have. I wish I could have it all back, but it’s live and learn.”
Verona has three regular season games left and has to win one more game to become playoff eligible. The Wildcats host Madison La Follette (5-1, 5-1) on Friday.
“Conference is sort of out of the picture,” Acker said. “Now we just focus on just making it as far as we can.”
Verona senior middle linebacker Keegan Lindell missed the game with an arm injury he suffered in practice, and Javon Presley is out for the year after tearing his ACL and MCL.
“He (Lindell) got hit funny at practice and it looked like it popped his shoulder out,” Richardson said.