WILLIAMS BAY — Williams Bay lost 14-8 to the Rio Vikings at home in a game that made Bulldog blood boil.
A penalty was earned from the sideline. Fans shouted death threats at the officials, who in turn threatened to end the game early. Emotions took control. The boys looked frustrated.
With less than five minutes remaining in the game, the Bulldogs failed twice to convert on forth down in Vikings territory.
Had Williams Bay been able to keep the drive going, they had a chance to score. Six points would have tied it, and seven could have secured the Bulldog’s third victory of the season.
Unfortunately a 14-yard Higgins run was called back due to a block in the back. Many in the crowd felt it was a bad call, but even Bulldogs’ head coach Derek Diehl agreed — it wasn’t.
On the next play, Higgins scrambled for what looked to be a 12-yard gain from the stands. In reality, he stepped out of bounds inches shy of a first down.
The referees made the right calls.
Diehl would later confirm after watching film of the game that on the Bulldog’s last offensive drive, there was, contrary to the opinion of the fans, an illegal block in the back. And that the refs hadn’t made a bad call when they marked Higgins out of bounds.
“Based off the film it’s really inconclusive whether we made the first down or not,” Diehl said. “It was a close call, but I don’t think it was a bad call at all.”
Referee Chris Nicholson declined to comment on the game.
Diehl and his staff stand by the calls — it’s not something they’re dwelling on, he said. His team wasn’t off the hook for the loss.
“I told the boys after the game, you never leave a game close enough that the officials have to decide a win or a loss,” Diehl said. “And that’s what happened tonight. We kept it too close.”
It was a bitter loss for a program that has recently gained a competitive edge under Diehl, who took over as Bulldogs’ head coach last season and led the team to its first victory since 2007.
Between 2008 and 2011, Williams Bay did not record a single win. In 2012 they won once. This season, they already have two victories.
“I think, after some early success, people want to jump start everything and just go to the state championship,” Diehl said. “And we have to understand that this is part of the building process, the tough losses.”
Rio and Williams Bay battled defensively all game. Both teams posted fewer than 250 yards of offense — Rio had 248 rushing yards and no passing yards, Williams Bay had 151 passing and 58 rushing.
“We struggled with some offensive execution up front,” Diehl said. “That’s why the stats look so bad.”
The outcome was decided by a handful of big plays.
With a little more than a minute to go in the first quarter, Vikings running back Logan Hutzler broke a 60 yard touchdown run. Rio went for two and converted.
It took a full quarter of play for Williams Bay to answer. But when they did, the drive only took about 40 seconds.
It started on the Bulldog 29 yard line. Higgins completed an 8-yard pass, and Rio was flagged for unnecessary roughness after the catch - 15-yard penalty. The next play was a 14-yard quarterback keep, followed by a 33-yard pass to wide receiver Ryan Bonamarte. It was first and goal from the Viking 1 yard line, and Higgins connected with Jonah VanVleet for a touchdown.
The 2 point conversion was good — a short pass to Andrew Breen in the end zone. After zipping 71 yards in four plays, the Bulldogs took an 8-8 tie into half time.
Last week, Higgins was forced to leave the game early due to an injury. A week can make a big difference. He looked healthy and focused on Friday.
“Higgins played well being under the gun and being on the run,” Diehl said. “And we thought we were pretty happy with his play, especially on defense.”
Higgins recorded seven solo tackles, and blew up a few plays that could have been big for Rio.
In the second half, however, Williams Bay couldn’t keep it going.
“The offensive line struggled in the beginning,” Diehl said. “[They] struggled throughout the game with picking up the blitz. We made adjustments at half, still met with no avail.”
Stalled drive after stalled drive killed the momentum Williams Bay had taken into halftime. Higgins was sacked. Passes were tipped. The Rio defensive line created disruption and the Bulldogs were unable to push back despite a series of strong defensive performances.
Then, with 2:30 left in the third quarter, Rio broke the tie. A pass interference penalty against Williams Bay set up a 20 yard Rio touchdown run. It was a reverse on fourth down.
The Bulldogs never found a way to answer.
“Hat’s off to Rio,” Diehl said. “They executed their game plan well.”
But Rio was a tough opponent, he said, not a last-place team, and his boys competed well. They held a conference rival to 14 points. They were in the game until the end.
“It’s the first time in many years that that’s been able to happen. I don’t think ever. We’ve never kept Rio to under three scores.”
Rio is undefeated in Trailways conference play, and Friday’s win propelled them into first place, a half game ahead of Fall River (5-0 overall, 2-0 Trailways), the Bulldogs’ next opponent.
Fall River averages just under 309 rushing yards per game and has outscored opponents 185-65 so far this season. It will be another tough test for Williams Bay.
“We’re not where we were in the past,” Diehl said. “But we’re definitely not where we want to be.”
The Bulldogs (2-3 overall, 1-2 Trailways) will travel to Fall River Friday. The game starts at 7 p.m.