Leavenworth gave Free State all they could handle Friday, and then a lot more.
The Pioneers knocked out quarterback/safety Joe Dineen early, and then came within a hair of knocking the state’s second-ranked Firebirds to their second defeat.
Free State won 25-23, in a tense game marked by a lot of physical defense and big stops, with the big plays mostly coming on special teams.
The Pioneers’ offense got the ball across midfield twice in the final quarter, but couldn’t get the big play they needed late to get points.
Following a Pioneer defensive stop on 3rd down that would’ve sealed the game for Free State, Leavenworth’s offense got it back with 1:32 on the clock and no timeouts.
A Jason Randall run and a pass interference penalty advanced it past the 50 with less than a minute left, but a sack on Landry Hodges forced a 4th and long with just a few ticks left.
Hodges pass was tipped at the line and intercepted.
“Our kids played their tails off against one of the best teams in the state and came up two points short,” Leavenworth head coach Mark Littrell said. “I’m proud of them, they laid it all on the line, and we believed we could play with the best in the state, and here we are.”
Leavenworth is now 1-1 in districts. They need to beat Wyandotte next week to have a good chance to make the playoffs for just the second time in the last 34 years.
If Leavenworth wins next Friday and Free State beats Lawrence, Leavenworth advances.
If Lawrence upsets Free State, it will come down to a points tiebreaker between Leavenworth, Free State, and Lawrence, with the top two advancing.
A key factor in Lawrence vs. Free State next week is if Dineen is able to play.
The KU-commit bruised his ribs after a blistering blindside hit from Jordan Donnelson in the second quarter.
Donnelson’s hit changed the complexion of the game. At the time, Free State looked like they had gotten their offense on track after the Pioneers forced a fumble on the opening drive and Jason Randall ran the recovery back for a touchdown.
Dineen then led the Firebirds to two scores and a field goal, and led 18-7.
But the Leavenworth offense started playing catch up with big throws and catches from Hodges to Isaiah Ross.
Ross beat his defender on two long first half passes. The first took the Pioneers down to the 2-yard line, but they went backwards and had to settle for a field goal.
The second was an end zone strike on a post route.
Free State played with their safeties up to stop Leavenworth’s potent running attack, forcing Leavenworth to throw deep.
Page 2 of 2 - Leavenworth completed some deep throws, but had trouble getting it in once they got close.
Ross finished with 120 yards and one touchdown on four receptions.
Hodges was 4-14 for 120 yards, with one touchdown and one interception. Each of his completions went to Ross.
Randall rushed for 135 yards on 22 carries and a touchdown, but his biggest plays came on special teams and defense.
After returning the fumble for a game-opening touchdown, Randall returned a kick for a touchdown to open the second half.
That put the Pioneers up 23-18. Free State scored on their next drive to take a two-point lead.
The rest of the game would be a stalemate of bruising defense and big stops from both teams.