For about 44 minutes, Highland didn't appear capable of mounting a comeback. Bumbled plays and a plethora of miscues, sure, but a momentum-shifting comeback? Nah. Add a couple of extremely long drives to the Rams' recipe for a win, and Skyline had to feel pretty good about a 9-point cushion.
Apparently, the Rams needed a challenge to motivate them.
After three quarters of inept play on offense and special teams, Highland blossomed, scoring on back-to-back drives of 85 and 99 yards in the final four minutes. The latter campaign featured 79 rushing yards and 18 passing for quarterback Nick Orchard, who sent the home crowd into a tizzy when Nate Fakahafua hauled in his 5-yard pass in the end zone's left corner to give the Rams a 12-9 edge, their first lead of the game, with just 42 seconds left in the contest.
Orchard then intercepted a desperation heave from Skyline quarterback Kevin Wagstaff to preserve a 13-9 non-conference victory for 4A Highland (2-1) over the 5A Eagles (2-1). Improbable comeback complete.
"I didn't really think about being nervous too much," said Orchard, who darted for runs of 19, 20 and 40 during the game-winning drive in the final two minutes. "Just went out and started playing."
He may have been cool and collected during the miracle march, but his coach admitted to gritting his teeth a little.
"I was nervous, but I mean, we had to do it," Highland coach Brody Benson said. "It was basically do or die."
Orchard's heroics wouldn't have been possible if not for a gutsy stand by the Rams' defense. After scoring its first touchdown with 4:04 left to play, Highland tried for an onside kick, which was recovered by Skyline near midfield. Runs of 27 and 20 yards by Caleb Latteier and Algernon Brown, respectively, placed the Eagles five yards from paydirt with four downs to score. Four stuffed runs later, Highland took over on its own 1-yard line.
With only two minutes to cover the length of the field, Orchard engineered a drive that accounted for one-third of the team's total offensive production on the night. In fact, the Rams' final two drives, both of which culminated in touchdowns, represented almost two-thirds of their offensive output, including all but eight of Orchard's 88 passing yards.
"Looks like he settled down when he should have had a lot of pressure on him," Benson said of his senior signal-caller, who finished with 114 rushing yards on 12 carries and threw two touchdowns to Fakahafua.
Prior to their final two drives, the Rams punted five times, snapped the ball through the back of the end zone on a punt from their 14-yard line and muffed a scoring opportunity when Skyline took the ball from the holder's hands on a field-goal attempt. And even when Highland's option attack worked, the Rams' drives stalled out or where spoiled by penalties.
Wagstaff (8-for-15 for 99 yards) threw a 38-yard touchdown pass to Casey Taylor mere seconds into the second period. The Eagles relied heavily on Brown (85 yards on 17 carries), but they also struggled with consistency on offense, punting the ball on six of their nine possessions.