By Gary R. Rasberry
INDIANAPOLIS -- The goal all season for the Mercer County Cougars has been to play in the inaugural Interstate Football League championship game at the RCA Dome in Indianapolis.
Anything beyond that, some of the players and fans said, was extra.
The Cougars got their wish on Sunday, playing on the home field of the Indianapolis Colts against the Darke County Warriors for the John Bushman Trophy, named after the man who formed the league before passing away this season.
The Cougars provided excitment, scoring twice in the last four minutes to get within eight points. But in the end, the Warriors held off the last charge of the Cougars toward the title with a 28-20 win. The Warriors end the season with a 10-2 record as Mercer County wraps up a fine debut season at 7-4.
Darke County led 28-12 at the start of the fourth quarter and looked to be running down the clock when the Cougars came up with a big defensive series and forced the Warriors to punt with seven minutes left. The Cougars, who had been moving on the running of Chad Timmerman, were forced to throw down 16 points. Quarterback Adam Wenning began to find favorite target Craig Schwie-terman on the routes, hitting two passes for 27 yards on the series. Wenning also scrambled for 22 yards on the eight-play, 78-yard drive. The Cougars were down to the Warrior nine but lost five on a false start. Wenning found Timmerman to get the five back then found Cody Overman for the final nine yards to make the score 28-18. The two-pointer failed to keep the score the same at the 4:18 mark.
The Cougar defense came up big to force a three-and-out on the next Warrior series and the punt went to the Cougar 29. Wenning found Overman for a 45-yard strike on the first play. Wenning and Timmerman added 15 yards to get the ball to the Warrior 11. An apparent touchdown to Collin Bechtol went for naught thanks to a holding call. Wenning's next pass was picked off, the fourth interception of the day.
The Warriors tried to move the clock while pinned on the 20. A holding call and a false start pinned the team deep inside the five on third-and-23. Aaron Strable tried to run out of the end zone but a crowd of Cougars brought him down for two points cutting the lead to eight with 37 seconds left in the game.
On the free kick, Overman took the ball at the Cougar 31 and moved all the way to the Warrior 46. On the first play, Wenning found Overman again for 19 yards and a first down at the 27. After a spike to stop the clock, Wenning found Overman for eight yards. With nine seconds left, Wenning scrambled and looked but threw incomplete, leaving five seconds on the clock.
On the last play of the game, Wenning again scrambled and spotted Overman, but the ball appeared to be tipped slightly in the end zone and fell to the artificial turf, ending the game.
"I don't think the league could have asked for a better championship game than this for the first season," said fullback Jose Faller, who had 34 total yards. "It came down to the wire, there were a lot of fans here (the announced paid attendance was 722, with a large contingent of Cougar fans). It was a pretty good game."
Wenning finished with 270 yards on 17-of-22 passing. It was four interceptions, though, that hurt the Cougars early in the game.
"We made so many of those dumb plays in the first half," said Wenning. "A couple of those balls I should have wasted, I forced them. We had momentum but lost it going into the second half."
Schwieterman finished with 106 yards on six catches while Overman added 81 on four catches.
Timmerman concluded his season with yet another 100-yard game, rushing for 135 and two touchdowns.
Faller was happy with the season. With the IFL looking for additional teams next summer, Faller cannot wait. He also hopes that the success of the team will prompt more former football players from the Grand Lake Area to sign up for next season.
"Great season. I can't imagine having this season go as well as it did," said Faller. "One of the things we could use for next year are a couple of more players (the Cougars had between just 19-22 players on the roster this season). Sometimes we get tired at the end of the game. It seems there's a lot of interest wanting to play (next season). I think we're going to come back stronger."
Mercer County and Darke County will host the IFL All-Star Weekend on November 5-7. The IFL All-Star Game will wrap up the season on Nov. 7 at Barrenbrugge Park in Fort Recovery starting at 2 p.m.