By Nate Thompson
COMSTOCK PARK — Players from Grand Rapids NorthPointe Christian and Montague are far too young to remember “The Drive,” spearheaded by Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway, which sent the Denver Broncos to the Super Bowl in miraculous fashion.
But NorthPointe Christian senior quarterback Spencer Peterson did a great job re-enacting that historic drive on Friday, sending Montague to a crushing defeat in the process.
His screen pass to Char Willekes for the game-winning 13-yard touchdown lifted the Mustangs to a 31-28 victory in a tremendously exciting game between a pair of unbeaten squads.
NorthPointe (11-0) advances on to face Constantine in the regional round next weekend.
Montague, which experienced one of the biggest turnarounds in school history, ended its season 10-1 – an eight-win improvement from a year ago.
Montague coach Pat Collins thought his squad had its 11th victory all but sewn up. The Wildcats had a 28-24 lead late in the game with the Mustangs pinned at their own 5 yard line, following a perfectly executed pooch punt by senior Jacob Buchberger.
But somehow Peterson moved his team down the field, ending Montague’s dream season.
“It was an amazing drive,” Collins said of NorthPointe’s final possession. “We weren’t sitting back (in prevent defense). At times we’d get into coverage and they’d find a hole and beat us to the ball, and other times we’d get a little pressure on them, and (Peterson) would scramble and make a good throw.
“I give them a lot of credit there, because I thought we were in a pretty good position. But they kept chucking it downfield on us.”
Peterson, who ran the ball 21 times for 117 yards, was shaken up on a hard hit late in the third quarter, which forced him to rely on his other talent – his arm. He missed on his first two pass attempts on the Mustangs’ final drive, but then connected on three straight that picked up 77 yards.
The final play to Willekes was perfectly executed, leaving Montague with a sudden deficit and little time to work with.
Montague got the ball back with 44 seconds left on the clock, but the Wildcats couldn’t create any more late-game magic. They lined up starting quarterback Buchberger at wide receiver, but backup Dylan Stever – who throws a better deep ball – was sacked on fourth-and-long.
It was a bitter end for Montague, which thrilled its fans with an impressive second-half comeback.
NorthPointe built a 21-7 lead with 5:26 left in the first half, mostly on Peterson’s talents. He scored on a 41-yard quarterback sweep, completed a 20-yard touchdown pass, and rumbled in for a 2-yard score.
Montague bounced back late in the second quarter on a key 16-play drive, cumulating with a 3-yard scamper for a score by Buchberger.
The do-everything senior quarterback led the Wildcats with 212 yards rushing on 28 carries and scored four touchdowns – three rushing and one passing.
The teams went scoreless through the third quarter, but Montague evened the contest on the first play of the fourth. Buchberger caught a NorthPointe defensive back cheating with a pump fake, enabling wide receiver Zack VanVleet to get separation.
Buchberger did the rest, hitting VanVleet in stride for a 22-yard touchdown connection. The Wildcats’ ensuing 2-point conversion pass tied the contest at 21-21.
NorthPointe responded with its own big pass play, a 67-yard throw from backup quarterback Ethan Visser to receiver Spencer Rowland, but he was pushed out at the Montague 1 yard line.
The Wildcats’ defense held tight near the goal line, and forced the Mustangs to kick a field goal and take a 24-21 lead.
Montague stalled on its next drive, but the Wildcats got a break when Buchberger’s bouncing punt glanced off the leg of a NorthPointe player, enabling Montague to recover on its own 40 yard line.
A penalty created a third-and-20 scenario, but VanVleet hauled in an outstanding over-the-shoulder catch with a defensive back all over him at the NorthPointe 2. That set up Buchberger’s ensuing 2-yard sneak and a 28-24 Wildcats’ lead with 4:42 left.
What seemed like enough at the time, wasn’t enough, thanks to Peterson. He finished 14-of-25 for 184 yards through the air, with most of those coming on his final drive.
“He’s a different dude,” Collins said, shaking his head. “He’s big, he’s fast, and he can move well. We had him pegged as a running quarterback, but what he did with his arm at the end was impressive.”
Montague’s ending certainly didn’t overshadow its remarkable season, which included a West Michigan Conference championship. Collins hugged Buchberger at the end and whispered in his ear.
“You’re amazing,” he said.
Collins expressed the same sentiment to the entire outgoing senior class.
“I wanted to talk to the seniors because the leadership they’ve shown is second to nothing,” he said. “The character kids they are just blows me away.”