In a wild, back-and-forth battle graced by numerous big plays by each side, it was an unforced error that led to Centennial’s undoing in a 38-35 playoff loss to St. Michael-Albertville (STMA) on Friday night.

The Cougars led 28-7, fell behind 31-28, and regained a 35-31 lead on a 46-yard touchdown by Lance Nielsen Jr. with 8:33 left.

Then, the Cougar defense, otherwise torched by the Knights throughout the second half, stopped a quarterback sneak on fourth down and less than a yard, at the Knight 32, with 6:40 left.

The defenders bounded off the field jubilantly. They had turned the ball over to the offense, which already had generated five touchdowns, with a very short field and a great chance to put the game away.

However, on the first play, quarterback Daylen Cummings’ pitchout to Lance Liu hit the thousand-yard fullback in his back and the ball fell to the ground in an apparent miscommunication.

The Knights recovered, and gratefully took advantage of the huge break by marching to the go-ahead touchdown. After Max Keefer barged 16 yards on a 3rd-and-11 play, Jarrett Bennett dashed the last four yards for a 38-35 lead with 1:36 left.

Centennial picked up two first downs but Bennett’s interception at the 10 on a fourth-down pass ended the game.

The second-round loss in the Class 6A playoffs finished the Cougars season with a 5-5 record against the most challenging football schedule in the school’s history. Two of the losses came against STMA (6-4), both after taking a big early lead. They lost 19-16 in the second week of the season.

Bennett carried 20 times for 127 yards and four touchdowns for the Knights. Keefer carried 19 times for 107 yards. Quarterback Owen Neros completed 13 of 20 passes for 151 yards. Riley Purcell caught six for 71 yards and a touchdown.

Centennial stormed ahead 28-7 in the first half. They gave up a touchdown on the opening drive (Bennet’s 32-yard run) but quickly pulled even in just two plays — a kick return by Will Quick to the 44 and Nielsen’s 56-yard run.

Cummings hit Chase Granzow for a 19-yard touchdown and Dan O’Neill ran 26 yards for another touchdown before the quarter ended for a 21-7 lead. Eli Nowacki booted four touchbacks and three extra points in the quarter. O’Neill’s 37-yard gainer in the second quarter set up Liu’s one-yard touchdown for a 28-7 lead.

The Knights, staggered for much of the half, recovered for a last-minute touchdown drive, capped by Neros’ six-yard touchdown toss to Purcell with six seconds left in the half.

Centennial, on the opening drive of the second half, drove to the Knights’ 35, hoping to re-open a 21-point lead, but fumbled the ball away.

Neros immediately hit Purcell for a 37-yard gain and the Knights were unstoppable the rest of the game except for that one fourth-down sneak. Bennett’s 23-yard touchdown, Purcell’s 27-yard field goal, and Bennett’s 12-yard touchdown gave them a 31-28 lead, setting up the last two lead changes.

Nielsen gained 101 yards in just two carries, and recovered a fumble that set up another touchdown. O’Neill gained 82 yards in 13 carries, and Liu 51 yards in 14 carries. Cummings completed three of 10 passes for 27 yards.

Centennial ………………. 21 7 0 7 — 35

St. Michael-Albertville …. 7 7 17 7 — 38

STMA — Jarrett Bennett 32 run (Riley Purcell kick)

Cen — Lance Nielsen Jr. 56 run (Eli Nowacki kick)

Cen — Chase Granzow 19 pass from Daylen Cummings (Nowacki kick)

Cen — Dan O’Neill 26 run (Nowacki kick)

Cen — Lance Liu 1 run (Nowacki kick)

STMA — Purcell 4 pass from Owen Neros (Purcell kick)

STMA — Bennett 23 run (Purcell kick)

STMA — Purcell 27 field goal

STMA — Bennett 12 run (Purcell kick)

Cen — Nielsen 36 run (Nowacki kick)

STMA — Bennett 4 run (Purcell kick)

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