Craig makes playoffs despite another heartbreaking loss
Special to The Gazette
VERONA-- As the skies opened over Wildcats Stadium, turning an annoying rain into a downpour, Janesville Craig reveled in the prospects Friday night.
With a guaranteed playoff berth on the line, the Cougars’ defense smothered Verona, and their offense was doing just enough to lead early in the fourth quarter of a Big Eight Conference game.
But when the rains briefly relented, and the ball hit the wet turf off a wayward toss, Craig was left to play the waiting game.
Verona tailback Joe Riley cashed in Craig’s only fumble with a 1-yard run with 8:10 remaining, scoring the game’s only touchdown in the Wildcats' 7-3 victory.
It was the second straight gut punch for the Cougars (4-5) after losing 26-19 to Madison West last week. But it wasn’t a knockout punch. Despite their sub-.500 record, the Cougars are in the playoffs for the first time since 2014 after there were not enough teams with .500-or-above conference marks to fill out all seven WIAA brackets.
“They can wake up and see we get to spend one more week together,” Craig coach Adam Bunderson said.
Playing through a steady downpour in the first half was no concern to Craig and its pistol offense. Craig pounded the ball against the Wildcats’ front, and it paid dividends on Craig’s fourth drive when the Cougars delivered three plays of at least 13 yards and converted that success into a 27-yard field goal by Michael Feirn.
That appeared like it was going to be enough with Craig’s defense dominating. Verona quarterback Aaron Young--the Big Eight leader in passing yards per game (162.8)--went just 2-for-13 for nine yards, while the Wildcats’ running game managed only two carries longer than seven yards on the first eight drives.
It seemed like it would be enough, even though Craig couldn’t pounce on any one of Verona’s eight fumbles.
“This is the most physical and intense defense we’ve ever had,” said Bunderson, who has been at the school over a decade. “They like to hit. They’re scrappy. They like to get their nose in there. I think teams realize when they play us it’s going to be physical and they’re going to get hit.”
But when quarterback Ben Coulter misfired on a pitch, resulting in Verona recovering a fumble at the Craig 33, things began to unravel. After runs of 10 and 18 got Verona to the 1, Riley found the end zone on his third attempt from outside the goal line for the go-ahead score.
“Muddy conditions, wet ball, maybe don’t call a pitch play,” Bunderson said. “You can look back at one play, but it’s tough to do that because we made so many good plays.”
Craig did its best to salvage things, marching inside the Verona 45 on its final two drives only to see them end with interceptions--the final one after time had already expired.
It sealed their fate, albeit only temporarily, with the Cougars knowing they were likely going to make the postseason field anyway.
“Our mental toughness has come a long way this year,” Bunderson said. “When things in the game don’t go our way, our guys don’t drop their heads and get after it the next play. I think that’ll definitely help us moving forward.”
VERONA 7, CRAIG 3
Janesville Craig 0 3 0 0--3
Verona 0 0 0 7--7
Scoring: C--Michael Feirn 27 field goal. V--Joe Riley 1 run (Young kick).
Statistics: First downs--C 10, V 6. Rushing--C 45-159, V 33-108. Passing yards--C 18, V 9. Passes--C 5-2-3, V 13-2-0. Fumbles--C 3-1, V 8-0. Penalties--C 7-47, V 5-55.
Last updated: 12:07 am Saturday, October 14, 2017