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Late rally sends Wildcats to title game

Story by Jim Joyner, Sports Editor

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With 5:35 to play in the fourth quarter, Eastern Oregon took a 41-24 lead, and the game was apparently over. The Baker Wildcats’ hopes for a perfect season were beginning to slip away. It would take a miracle for Baker to win the game.

On Saturday, that miracle happened in Baldwin City.

The Wildcats scored 21 unanswered points in the final 4:31 of the game and made two stops on defense. They scored the game’s winning touchdown on a 77-yard pass to Clarence Clark with 38 seconds to play.

No. 2 Baker beat No. 9 Eastern Oregon 45-41 on Saturday. The Wildcats will now play in the NAIA-FCS title game for the first time in 30 years.

Baker will take on No. 4 Saint Francis on Dec. 17 in Daytona Beach, Florida, for a chance at the school’s first national championship in a team sport.

“You’ve just gotta believe,” head coach Mike Grossner said.

After the final play of the game, fans from one of the largest crowds in Liston Stadium history stormed onto the field to celebrate a comeback of epic proportions. The victory improved Baker’s record this season to 14-0.

“When this team decides to turn it on, we’re pretty darn good,” Grossner said. “We learned that, yeah, there’s adversity in life. Sweat it off, and let’s go make the next play.”

Clark was named the Offensive Player of the Game with two touchdowns of 75 and 77 yards. Clark caught eight passes for 217 yards. He also kicked a 34-yard field goal.

“He was an All-American receiver last season and will likely be an All-American kicker this season,” Grossner said. “It’s unbelievable what he does.”

Baker led Eastern Oregon 24-17 at the half, but the Mountaineers came out of the break and took control in the third quarter, when Eastern Oregon’s defense slowed down Baker’s offense to only one first down.

In the fourth quarter, Eastern Oregon extended the lead to 41-24 and all hope was slipping away for Baker. Down by three possessions, the Wildcats had to strike quickly.

BU quarterback Logan Brettell led the team 43 yards down the field, and within one minute, Baker had made it a two-score game on Damon Nolan’s third touchdown grab of the game.

The Wildcat defense then made the biggest play of the game. After a three-and-out from inside their own 20-yard line, the Mountaineers couldn’t execute a punt because of a bad snap, and Baker’s Indie Allen tackled Mountaineer punter Nathan Harden before he could run. Baker took over inside the 10-yard line, and on the first play Brettell found Cornell Brown for an 8-yard touchdown. Baker trailed 41-38 and there was hope.

“If we could get a stop, then we’d get the ball with around 50 seconds, and that’s enough time for our offense,” Grossner said.

Eastern Oregon picked up one first down on the ensuing drive, but the Mountaineers were stuffed and forced to punt on fourth-and-1 from around midfield. Baker took over at its own 23-yard line with no timeouts and 47 seconds to tie the game with a field goal or win with a touchdown.

On the first play of the drive, Brettell dialed up Clark down the far boundary and hit him in stride at midfield.

“Logan (Brettell) told me all day that he was going to launch one down the numbers for me,” Clark said. “And boy, did he launch it.”

Clark raced down the sideline and scored on the 77-yard bomb to give Baker the lead with 38 seconds to play. The Wildcats had overcome a 17-point deficit and were in control to win in the wildest of fashions.

“I’m watching him take that to the house at the end, and I was glad it was Clarence,” Grossner said. “I didn’t want to get stopped at the 12 and have to kick a field goal to force overtime. I knew once he cleared, he was gone.”

The Wildcat defense halted any last-second chance of Eastern Oregon equaling Baker’s miracle comeback, and the Wildcats rejoiced as the game came to an end on an incomplete pass.

“I don’t think it has set in yet,” Clark said of the miracle comeback.

Brettell overcame his three interceptions and passed for six touchdowns and 406 yards on the afternoon. Nolan made eight receptions for Baker for 109 yards, while Brown rushed for 121 yards on 16 carries.

Linebacker Mikeice Adams led Baker with 12 tackles. Cornerback Nate McLaurin and defensive end Nick Becker each made 11 tackles.

Baker didn’t force a turnover in the game, threw three interceptions and lost a fumble and still found a way to win. Baker outgained Eastern Oregon 532-399 in total offense. Eastern Oregon quarterback Zach Bartlow passed for 202 yards and three touchdowns. Running back Alfred Gross rushed for 137 yards and a touchdown.

No. 4 Saint Francis beat No. 3 Reinhardt 42-24 in Waleska, Georgia, on Saturday to advance to the national title game. Saint Francis is 12-1 on the season. The Cougars’ only loss of the season came in October against Marian, which entered the NAIA-FCS playoffs as the top-ranked team in the nation.

Baker last played Saint Francis in 2012 in the first round of the playoffs, when Baker lost 22-17 in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Saint Francis played in the 2004, 2005 and 2006 NAIA national title games, but lost in all three.

Baker last appeared in the national title game in 1986, losing to Linfield 17-0. This will be Baker’s second national title game appearance in the 2016 calendar year. The women’s basketball team reached the national championship game in March in Independence, Missouri, before losing to MidAmerica Nazarene.

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