The playoff picture looked crystal clear for the Bellerose bulldogs before Friday’s sketchy showing in division one Carr conference football.
The Bulldogs are now desperately looking at must-win scenarios with two games remaining before the Oct. 27 semifinals after the 20-16 loss to the Austin O’Brien Crusaders.
The Bulldogs, Crusaders and Bev Facey Falcons are tied for third at 3-2 behind the Salisbury Sabres (4-1) and the powerhouse Harry Ainlay Titans (5-0).
The top three Tier I (1,250-plus students) teams in the Carr also advance to the provincial north semifinals and in the Football Alberta top-10 rankings Ainlay is No. 2, the Bulldogs are No. 7 after peaking at No. 4 the week before, Salisbury is No. 8 and Facey is No. 9.
“I think we’re going to have to win out. I really do,” head coach Chad Hill said with conviction after the team’s second loss in three games.
A promising season now hangs in the balance against the Ross Sheppard Thunderbirds (2-3) Friday at 7:30 p.m. at Clarke Stadium and Facey, last year’s Carr champion and Tier I Alberta Bowl finalist, Oct 20 at 6 p.m. during Senior Night at Larry Olexiuk Field.
“We can only win out with one win at a time so it’s Shep up next and we’ve got to get the job done,” Hill said. “Shep is a much improved football team (after going 0-7-1 last year). We’ve got to get some guys healthy and ready to go for Shep because they’re going to give us a fight.”
The Bulldogs have nobody to blame but themselves for the current precarious state of affairs.
“If we would’ve won this game I’d probably be able to digest my Thanksgiving dinner this weekend. As it stands now it’s not going to be a good weekend at all. We’ll be thinking about missed opportunities so we need to regroup on Monday,” Hill said.
“I hope the loss stings. I know it stings the coaching staff and it sure as heck better sting the players. There are a lot of sad faces in (the team’s change room) but we bring that upon ourselves.
“I know we can show better than what we showed tonight. We weren’t good enough and that’s on us,” Hill added. “That’s not to take anything away anything from Austin O’Brien, great coaching staff and great football team, but we did not do enough to win. We took penalties that were not even penalties of aggression like lining up offside and jumping offside.”
The Crusaders overpowered an injury-plagued offensive line to stop the Bulldogs in their tracks for a minuscule 15 rushing yards.
Quarterback Quade Kozak was also under pressure while completing 16 of 29 passes for 253 yards, two touchdowns and one interception.
“We were not crisp on offence for most of the entire game. We didn’t get it going on offence until later on and we couldn’t sustain drives,” Hill said. “Obviously we had a rash of players go down. It’s a MASH unit on certain positions so we were weren’t going to be able to pound the ball and run it as effectively as we normally could but we’ve got to overcome that. We have enough good players and we’ve got to be able to overcome the adversity like that and tonight we didn’t do enough to win and we didn’t deserve to win.
“We’re a talented team but it’s got to be how hard we work. We have to have the desire and work ethic to compete against the best teams and unfortunately tonight I thought we were flat and we were flat all week which disappoints me because a game against Austin O’Brien shouldn’t be too hard to get up for.
“We better be up for Shep that’s for sure.”
The Crusaders ran wild for 290 yards on 41 carries and were 7-for-19 passing with one pick.
“We struggled with their speed all night and they exploited that. They’ve got good athletes and they’re fast,” Hill said. “Defence I thought was hit or miss all night and picked an inopportune time to miss. Defence came up big with a couple of stops but at the end when it counted the most we weren’t able to pull through.”
The Crusaders marched the ball 57 yards for the winning touchdown after a two-and-out by the Bulldogs and Kozak’s punt from around the Bellerose 25 sailed out of bounds with 75 seconds to play.
First downs by the Crusaders on a pass play and a run up the middle put the ball at the 18. An offside flag also hurt the Bulldogs before the Crusaders busted loose for a 15-yard TD with 25.7 seconds on the clock and the convert was good.
Ben VanLeeuwen’s five-yard TD reception and conversion put the Bulldogs on top 16-13 with 3:09 remaining.
After the kick-off, Darryl Marsh’s tackle left the Crusaders scrimmaging at their 17 and after a first down at the 31 they were forced to punt and the Bulldogs huddled up at their 24 with 1:51 on the clock but were unable to move the sticks.
“To get up 16-13 late in the fourth quarter was fantastic but the final three minutes of Canadian football takes a long time and unfortunately we were not able to ground the ball out to get first downs to kill the clock,” Hill said.
The Crusaders struck first on their second play from scrimmage with a 59-yard TD romp and the conversion was successful with 9:38 left in the opening quarter.
The second offensive series for the Bulldogs ended with the Crusaders picking off a deflected pass at their 30. The Crusaders then advanced the ball deep into Bellerose territory but on third down Logan McCullough knocked down a pass in front of the receiver and the Bulldogs gained possession at their 12.
In the second quarter, the Bulldogs tied it on Cordel Callioux’s clutch catch in the corner of the endzone on second down and 17 at the Crusader 25 and with 7:35 to go before the break VanLeeuwen’s convert was good.
“It was just chemistry between me and Quade. We practice that all the time. It was over the back shoulder. That was a really good throw he did to me. I was just running and fading it out. It felt really good,” said Callioux, who caught five passes for 83 yards in the loss.
Nathan Brake’s sideline grab and run to the Crusader 19 set the stage for Cordel’s TD.
As the first half wound down, the Bulldogs recovered a fumble around their 10-yard line to stop a promising drive.
The next series by the Crusaders also came up short as Matt Coogan and Keegan Pawlik combined on a sack and a few plays later Marsh pulled off a pivotal tackle on second down and 26 at the Bellerose 40.
Callioux, 17 was the centre of attention twice during a three-play sequence in the third quarter. The 2016 All-Edmonton Football Team selection at defensive back coughed up a punt return at the Bellerose 12 and on second and eight he jumped high in front of the receiver to pick off a pass in the endzone and ran it out to the Bellerose 21 with 4:46 remaining before quarter time.
“I just read the play. It felt really good taking it out after I dropped the ball from a punt return. I rebounded from that. I had to get that out of my mind,” said the Grade 12 safety and wideout.
After the interception, the Bulldogs put first downs together as Kozak completed passes to McCullough and Travis Heggart but were forced to punt and Kozak’s kick bounced out of bounds at the nine.
The Bulldogs proceeded to pin their ears back to record a safety as the Crusaders fumbled the ball around in the endzone and Marsh was credited with the tackle with 42 seconds left in the quarter.
Marsh and Heggart finished the game with six tackles apiece and Bronson Wilkie was all over the field racking up a team-high 13 tackles.
Early in the fourth quarter, the Crusaders were unsuccessful on a 40-yard field goal and on the ensuing possession the Bulldogs shot themselves in the foot with a holding penalty after a big reception by Brake, the team-leader in receiving yards with 104 on four catches.
The Bulldogs would go on to punt from their endzone and in prime scoring range the Crusaders quickly crossed the goal line from the one after an offside penalty against the Bulldogs.
The two-point conversion was no good as the Crusaders led 13-9 with 5:47 to play.
After a strong kick-off return by McCullough to the Bellerose 42, in which he was injured on the play, Kozak aired the ball out for a key first down to Brake and then Callioux grabbed a short pass and streaked down the side to the 18 for a 37-yard gain. VanLeeuwen, who was on the limp after suffering a lower body injury in the second quarter, capped off the drive with a catch in front of the goal line, then spun out of a tackle for the go ahead five-yard TD.
The Crusaders would go on to bury the Bulldogs with a TD at the bitter end.
“Our whole team had a whole lot of momentum after that touchdown (by VanLeeuwen). We were really hyped,” Callioux said. “I thought we were going to have it this game but they brought it harder in the end.”
The loss was tough to swallow for the Bulldogs and a playoff spot within reach.
“There were ups and downs. We had a lot of injured players and a lot of subs. It was a battle,” said Callioux, a who transferred to Bellerose last year from Paul Kane after winning the 2015 Grant Yuzyk Award as the pool B MVP in the metro Edmonton junior division as the quarterback/safety for the PK Blues. “We’ve just got to focus in at practice that’s for sure and go hard and stay on track for the next game.”