CLIFTON — The Comets wasted no time in their second home win of the Class 2A playoffs, this time charging out to a huge first-quarter lead before cruising to a convincing 39-28 win against Mercer County.
A 32-yard touchdown strike from quarterback Jay Lemenager to wide receiver Jacob Shoven just 10 seconds into the opening quarter firmly set the tone in the Comets’ win, and Shoven’s 39-yard interception return touchdown just more than two minutes later reinforced it.
When running back Garrett Graham broke free for a 26-yard sprint to the end zone with eight minutes left in the first quarter, Central found itself sitting pretty with a 19-0 lead just four minutes into the contest.
“Our game plan always is to just get going early. We like to put our foot on the gas and don’t let up,” Lemenager said. “We just have to make sure we do things right and do things better. We still need to improve to move forward.”
The breakneck pace was instrumental for Central in establishing itself in the postseason victory, and those early points came in handy in the second and third quarters, as Mercer County finally gathered itself and began to show signs of life.
They broke their scoreless streak with 1:20 left in the first on a 3-yard touchdown from fullback Tyler Bridgford, then struck again early in the second frame on a 73-yard gallop from junior Braden Williams that brought them within one score in a 19-14 deficit.
Having an opponent within striking distance for the first time in a long time must have spurred the Comets into action, however, as they answered with back-to-back scores.
The first came when Lemenager found Shoven in the end zone for a second score from the pair — this time from 19 yards out with 6:22 left in the first half. The second put Central up 32-14 with 2:49 left in the second when Lemenager punched one in from the goal line for the first of his two rushing scores of the contest.
“Of course, it all starts with the offensive line, but the chemistry between me and Jay has been unreal. We always seem to find each other when we need to,” Shoven said. “I love our connection, and the way our O-line has played has been amazing.”
It looked as though the Comets would carry that lead into the intermission, but the Golden Eagles had other plans. With six seconds left before half, freshman quarterback Matt Lucas hooked up with Williams in traffic over the middle, which turned into a 19-yard touchdown and put the halftime score at 32-20.
Defensive lapses in big spots were a running theme for the Comets in spite of the win. Though it never felt as though their lead was in any real danger, an inability to stop Mercer County in crucial spots seemed to plague the top-seeded Comets. The touchdown with just seconds left in the half and a number of lapses on third and long allowed the Eagles to salvage enough drives to keep them within reasonable distance of the otherwise-dominant home team.
“Honestly, I think we had too many third-down slip-ups,” Lemenager said of the Eagles ability to hang around. “On third down, we are taught to pin our ears back and get them to fourth [down], but we just did not do that tonight at certain points of the game.”
Just more than three minutes into the second half, the Eagles cut the lead to its smallest margin when Seth Speaker spun his way to a 6-yard touchdown that brought them within four at 32-28.
But Lemenager struck again with a 19-yard touchdown run seconds later after a clutch, 72-yard kickoff return from Cameron Burrow. Lemenager’s second and final score brought the tally to its final resting place at 39-28.
From that point forward, the Central defense hunkered down in big spots. They forced two turnovers on downs by stopping Mercer County on 4th and 7 from the Central 35 and 4th and 1 from the Central 6-yard line to put the game on ice.
Lemenager was extremely efficient in the victory, going 8 for 11 through the air for 84 yards passing and a pair of passing scores. He also picked up 75 yards rushing and two touchdowns on 14 touches.
Garrett Graham led Central on the ground in the victory by picking up 104 yards and a score on 15 carries, and Shoven put together another strong day receiving with 5 catches for 84 yards and two touchdowns.
The win kept the slate clean for Central, improving its overall standing to 11-0 in 2019. They advanced to the Class 2A state quarterfinals with the victory, where they will take on Fieldcrest in Minonk on Saturday.