The unbelievable became the unforgettable at Superior Heights on Saturday.
The Sault Sabercats trailed 24-0 before the game was nine-minutes old, and were down 38-16 with six minutes left in the fourth quarter.
But the varsity Cats took advantage of some costly Brantford Bisons miscues, and rallied for an improbable and extraordinarily-dramatic 41-38 victory in the Ontario Football Conference season opener.
“There was never a time in my mind that we were going to lose,” said linebacker Jacob Jurich, who led the Cats with three solo tackles and seven assists. “The guys believed in each other.”
“Our guys showed a lot of heart and character,” added head coach Matt Premo. “But Brantford made a lot of mistakes in the fourth quarter to allow us to get back into the game.”
In a steady rain, miscues, which included Brantford throwing a pick-six and botching two punts in the final 4:43, helped set up the Sault’s successful comeback.
Trailing 38-34 with 1:54 remaining, the Sabercats faced a third-and-goal from the Bisons one-yard-line.
Premo explained how the Cats had a play called, but didn’t like its chances against the way in which Brantford was lined up defensively.
A timeout followed, and Premo recalled how he and offensive coordinator Jamie Antonello talked it over.
“We condensed our formation,” Premo continued, noting how the two slotbacks were brought into the offensive backfield, lining up on either side of quarterback Jordan Robinson-Wright.
On the snap, slot Tyler Brechin, who was on the left side of the quarterback, came under the offensive line and across the formation. Robinson-Wright hit him with a short pass and Brechin found the end zone for what proved to be the winning score.
“I came across the formation and saw I was wide open,” Brechin explained. “I caught it just outside the two-yard-line and saw perfect blocks in front of me. It felt really good to score.”
“It was a zone-read for Jordan,” Premo said of his quarterback having the option of passing or keeping the ball and attempting to run it in. “Their defensive end bit on the play and Jordan found Tyler.”
Gabe Spina’s second convert of the day capped the scoring.
“A couple of blocked punts were the result of mental breakdowns and that cost us,” said Brantford head coach Jim Jeavons. “They stuck with it when they were down, they got some breaks late and they deserved to win. Hopefully, we’ll see them again this season.”
“We always knew we could come back,” said Cats receiver Taylor Holub, who led his team with six receptions for 97 yards and a touchdown. “But we needed help from our defence, and we got it. The defence was unbelievable in the fourth quarter.”
Down 38-16, Robinson-Wright hit Holub for a five-yard major with 5:55 to play. The try for a two-point conversion failed.
But moments later, Ethan Fawcett made an interception and returned it 50 yards for another Sault score. Again, a two-point conversion try failed and the home side trailed 38-28.
However, with Brantford starting in poor field position, Julian Gioia blocked a Bisons punt and Christian Alfano fell on the loose ball for a special team’s major score.
The Bisons got a hand on Spina’s convert try and the missed attempt left the Sault down 38-34.
On their ensuing possession, poor field position again sunk the visitors.
Forced to punt from their goal line, the kick appeared to go off of a Bisons player, the Sault recovered and had a first-and-goal at the one.
That set the stage for Brechin’s winning touchdown.
“This comeback gives us an overall view of what this team is capable of,” Jurich said. “It shows how hungry we are this season and how much of a threat we’re going to be to the whole league.”
However, the way they started the game is certainly problematic for the Sabercats. The Sault was down 10-0 just 3:32 into the opening quarter. The Cats 24-point deficit by the 8:50 mark was difficult to explain, the coach said.
“It obviously wasn’t the way we wanted to start,” Premo added. “We don’t know what to attribute it to.”
“It was our first game and we were really shaky,” offered Holub, whose team is slated to visit Oakville this Saturday at 1 p.m.
Travis Johnson caught a 32-yard TD strike from Robinson-Wright, while Nick Pagnotta, on a two-yard touchdown run, had the other score for the winners.
Robinson-Wright and Rob Wright connected for a two-point conversion while Brechin added a single point on a 38-yard punt.
Notes: Nick Fowler had three solo tackles, three assists, an interception he returned 27 yards to set up Pagnotta’s touchdown, and a fumble recovery.
Aaron Keranen also had an interception while Jurich and Zach Tadashore were credited with fumble recoveries. Joe Rosso added two solo tackles and two assists.
On offence, Robinson-Wright completed 19 of 32 pass attempts for 161 yards, three touchdowns and one interception. Brechin had five receptions for 24 yards while Dylan Forsyth had four for 31.
Zac Zeppa got some key fourth quarter yards, finishing with 74 yards on 12 carries. Pagnotta carried five times for 57 and Brechin ran three times for 26 yards.