The Thunderbirds were fired up after an intentional grounding call turned into a safety.
The crucial call happened in the third quarter with Montgomery County leading North Callaway 16-8 before the Wildcats continued to gradually tear through the Thunderbird defense to win the district matchup 32-16.
The Wildcats (6-3, 4-3 EMO) chewed up clock in the first half, putting together drives of at least 10 plays and scoring at the end of each of them. Montgomery County collected 14 first downs in the first half and 22 for the game, compared with North Callaway's nine through four quarters.
Head coach Travis Blevins the game was physical as the Thunderbirds expected and was winnable in the third quarter, even after the safety, but the Wildcats' offense was unstoppable for North Callaway on Friday.
"We just struggled to stop them early and struggled to score early," Blevins said. "We got a little fired up after the safety call and took control of some tempo and had it going our way. Some things here and there didn't go our way (in the end)."
Quarterback Adam Czerniewski lived up to his billing going into the game as a dangerous dual-threat as he used his legs and made the short throws, often to receiver Ty Leu, just beyond the sticks to earn first downs. Czerniewksi finished with 14-for-21 passing for 143 yards and a touchdown while rushing for 115 yards and two touchdowns on 22 carries.
He was greedy at the end of an 85-yard scoring drive and was rewarded with a 36-yard touchdown pass to Jacer Brower, making the score 7-0.
North Callaway (4-4, 4-3 EMO) wanted to avoid turnovers in this game as the offense has turned the ball over on first possessions in four of its first seven games and on the first or second possession in six of seven. The Thunderbirds had to punt on the first drive but reached the house on the second.
The drive featured big plays by several seniors, including a kick return by Matthew Blair to the North Callaway 37, a long fourth-down reception by Payton Olsson down the sideline and bruising runs by Manny Moreno. Moreno ended the 10-play, 63-yard drive with a touchdown to give North Callaway the 8-7 lead at the end of the first quarter.
A big chunk of the second quarter came and went with the Wildcats taking small chunks before Czerniewski ran it in to make 13-8. They took it into North Callaway territory again before halftime but had to settle for a field goal to make 16-8 as the Thunderbirds showed some toughness. Eight of Leu's catches were made in the first half as he was a big reason the Wildcats were so effective when they had possession, Blevins said.
"We couldn't do anything with him," he said. "We tried different coverages and different concepts, but I feel like he had 20 catches in the first half. He was the key and Czerniewski put the ball where it needed to be and did the right things later in the game. Their game plan was excellent. We were outcoached and outplayed."
Despite recovering a fumble early in the third quarter, North Callaway couldn't do anything with it at midfield and had a greater test later when Montgomery County's special teams downed them at the North Callaway 1.
O'Neal rolled right on one play before his pass sailed to the sideline, in what was ruled intentional grounding after some deliberation among the officials. Montgomery County had an 18-8 lead and the ball with 4:09 left in the third quarter. While the call did fire up Blevin's team, which led to its best play of the night according to him, he said it doesn't matter whether the penalty call was right or wrong
"It's a sprint right play we have with a comeback choice route and Braydn threw the comeback route, which is the right read, and we misread it and the guy kept going," Blevins said. "It's the right ball, and he threw it right where it should have been. Quite honestly, I don't think they made a right or wrong call. They didn't see a guy (in the area), but you have to undertand the concept too behind it — he can go up on a corner and he can come back. It is what it is. It just happens, but I think it motivated us. We got it going for about a quarter and played good ball."
North Callaway's defense recovered another fumble 12 seconds later on the game clock at the Montgomery County 43 before its second scoring drive ended on a fumble of its own. Blair lost the ball but sophomore Kyle Pennell found it in the end zone, making it 18-16 at the end of the third quarter.
The Wildcat offense was still strong and the Thunderbird defense was ground game was stuffed — only rushing for 96 yards on 30 carries — as the Thunderbirds failed to convert a fourth down with 7:06 at the Montgomery County 46 on a play where O'Neal couldn't find a hole up the middle.
Blevins said the particular play the Thunderbirds tried to run on that fourth down did work before but was indicative of the problems they were having all night with missed reads and being beaten up front.
"It was a run pass option and they covered it. We had a big play out of it before and just didn't quite connect," Blevins said. "A lot of it was just some reads, and up front, we didn't get it done in the first half and were nonexistent. In the second half, we were much better, but (Montgomery County) play 9-10 people in the box and come after you so it is what it is."
Czerniewski, on the other hand, turned a third-and-2 situation into a 36-yard touchdown run to make the score 25-16 Wildcats with 4:12 left on the clock. Montgomery County had the ball back again after another North Callaway failed fourth-down conversion and scored on a touchdown pass to Leu with seconds left in the game.
North Callaway has the No. 6 seed for Friday's first round Class 2 District 6 game, where the Thunderbirds will travel to No. 3 seed California (6-3).