Fillmore Central's comeback falls just short, historic season ends in state semifinal thriller
The Falcons trailed by three touchdowns with more than a minute left in the third quarter, before nearly pulling off a comeback for the ages.
MINNEAPOLIS — Down by three possessions with just more than a minute left in the third quarter of Saturday's Class A state semifinal game, the Fillmore Central football team could have easily rolled over and celebrated what was already a historic season.
But not these Falcons.
When the game seemed all but over, the Falcons refused to quit.
In the blink of an eye, with 20 unanswered points in less than 10 minutes of game time, the once seemingly dead Falcons suddenly found themselves a 2-point conversion away from taking the lead with just more than 3 minutes left.
Yet, the miraculous comeback wasn't meant to be.
Quarterback Dillon O'Connor was sacked on the 2-point conversion and the Falcons last effort was stopped inside the Minneota 30-yard line as time expired. With it, their historic season came to an end with a heartbreaking 28-27 loss to Minneota at U.S. Bank Stadium.
Fillmore Central's record-breaking season ends with an 11-1 record and in the program's first state tournament. Minneota will now play in its sixth Prep Bowl in the past 11 years against Springfield at 10 a.m. on Friday, Dec. 2.
"I think everybody in the state got the opportunity to see what this football team has been about all season long," coach Chris Mensink said. "There's so much fight in this group. They play every play for the next play. I just couldn't be prouder of these guys. It's been a great season and what a fun opportunity to coach these seniors."
The game seemed over after Ryan Meagher recorded Minneota's third rushing touchdown with a 4-yard scamper to put the Vikings up 28-7 with 1:01 left in the third quarter.
But there was never any doubt from the Falcons sidelines.
The offense needed just five plays and 50 seconds to cut into the deficit on the ensuing drive after O'Connor rumbled home from 19 yards out to make it 28-14.
On the kickoff, the Falcons had a great kick that rolled away from the Minneota return team inside the 5-yard line. By the time the Vikings corralled it, Fillmore Central players were waiting to make the tackle.
It pinned the Vikings back and after a quick 3-and-out, the Falcons had the ball at the Minneota 36.
Once again O'Connor and the offense quickly delivered, needing just 52 seconds to find the end zone on a beautiful pass from O'Connor to Chase Christianson on a fourth-and-7 play. O'Connor avoided pressure and then lofted a perfect pass over Christianson's shoulder in the back of the end zone.
Just like that, the Falcons trailed just 28-21 with 9:39 left.
The Falcons' defense just needed another stop.
It did just that, forcing the second consecutive Minneota three-and-out to give the ball right back to O'Connor and company.
Taking over at their own 16 with 7:25 left, the Falcons drove right down the field until O'Connor found Bryce Corson for 28 yards on a third-and-10 to set up a goal-to-go situation.
O'Connor punched it in from a 1-yard out to make it 28-27 with more than 3 minutes remaining. With no hesitation, Mensink made the decision to go for the lead with the 2-point conversion.
"We talked about it as we were driving down there," Mensink said. "The decision was made long before we scored the touchdown that we were going for two."
Yet, the conversion failed as Minneota was in the lap of O'Connor after the play-action fake and sacked him to keep a 28-27 lead.
Once again, it seemed the game was over and once again, the Falcons didn't believe it to be.
In fact, there was no doubt that they were getting the ball back.
"I feel like when we lost the ball, we knew we were going to get another chance, because our defense was going to get a stop," O'Connor said. "We always have confidence in them."
The Falcons defense came through on that belief, forcing a third consecutive three-and-out to send the ball back to the offense.
With just 1:26 left, Fillmore Central took over at its own 26 with a spot in the Prep Bowl on the line.
Fillmore Central was quickly in business, as O'Connor connected with Corson for 31 yards. However, the Falcons went backward on their next few plays, setting up a fourth-and-25 at their own 47.
That's when the hook and ladder made its appearance.
O'Connor fired a pass to Christianson, who lateraled it to Corson, who tip-toed the sideline, somehow managing to stay in bounds for a 35-yard gain and give Fillmore Central a first down at the Minneota 18 with 22 seconds left.
The next play, it appeared Corson had the game-winning score, but the ball came loose as he hit the ground in the corner of the end zone.
O'Connor was sacked on the ensuing play. After a spike stopped the clock, O'Connor's last heave into the end zone toward Christianson fell incomplete as the time expired on Fillmore Central's historic season.
"This was the best season of my life," Corson said. "The most fun ever. Just coming up here, having an opportunity to stay in the hotel with all my best friends. That's a game right there we're going to remember the rest of our lives. We still wish we were going (to the Prep Bowl), but it was a lot of fun."
In the end, it was the second quarter that was too much for the Falcons to overcome.
It was a great start, with the Falcons offense taking the opening kickoff right down the field. Dillon O'Connor capped the 8-play, 69-yard drive with a well-placed ball in the corner of the end zone that found Bryce Corson for a 7-yard touchdown. O'Connor was 4-for-4 for 49 yards on the opening drive, including a 38-yard strike to Chase Christianson.
Minneota answered right back with a touchdown of its own.
The next Fillmore Central offensive possession started just as promising the first, before a false start made a fourth-and-3 into a fourth-and-8 at the Minneota 29. The Falcons attempted trickery with Corson taking the end-around and firing a pass to Christianson down the field that fell incomplete.
It turned out to switch momentum.
Minneota marched right down the field, taking a 14-7 lead on a rushing touchdown.
The second play of the ensuing Fillmore Central drive, tight end Kyle Daniels appeared to a step on the defender. But a good play from Eli Gruenes saw him just get his hand on it at the last second to tip the pass. The ball ricocheted off Daniels and into into the arms of Destin Fier for the Minneota interception.
Six plays later, Ryan Dalager ripped a pass away from Corson and took it 38 yards to the house on a third-and-15 for a 21-7 lead with 4:58 left in the second quarter.
That quarter proved to be the difference.
The Falcons had the ball for just 2 minutes and 36 seconds, while being outgained in yards 176-16 in the frame.
"The second quarter, we were a little stale," Mensink said. "We were out-physicaled, which hasn't happend to us much this year. So we needed to regroup."
Regroup they did.
The defense did a better job of staying gap disciplined against the tough Minneota rushing attack that featured waves of pulling lineman on counters and misdirection plays. The FC offense, meanwhile, really started to exploit the middle of the field with their play-makers. Corson (10 catches, 183 yards) and Christianson (4-64) gave the Vikings secondary fits all game long.
It resulted in a near comeback for the ages.
"Credit goes to Fillmore," Minneota coach Chad Johnston said. "They had the athletes. We knew they had the athletes, we knew they were going to throw it around. We were concerned about that. They did a nice job of protecting the quarterback, we didn't get much pressure on him. Gave him way too much time to find open receivers. Again, they have gifted receivers, so it was hard for us in the defensive backfield."
In the end though, the Falcons just ended up running out of time.
But it doesn't take anything away from the historical season these Falcons had. The next hope is to build off of it, something they have no doubt next year's crop can do.
"There is still a ton of young kids coming out," Corson said. "They definitely have a bright future ahead."
Minneota 28, Fillmore Central 27
Fillmore Central 7-0-7-13—27
FC — Bryce Corson 7 pass from Dillon O'Connor (Atlee Herschberger kick) 8:42.
M — Isaac Pohlen 1 run (Peyton Gillund kick) 4:03
M — Anthony Rybinski 4 run (Gillund kick) 8:14
M — Ryan Dalager 38 pass from Pohlen (Gillund kick) 4:58
M — Ryan Meagher 4 run (Gillund kick) 1:01
FC — O'Connor 19 run (Herschberger kick) 0:11
FC — Chase Christianson 30 pass from O'Connor (Herschberger kick)
FC — O'Connor 1 run (run failed) 3:15