PORTLAND, Maine — The Maine Central Institute football team has been pursuing perfection for nearly three years, dominating its Class D North brethren only to fall painstakingly short of its ultimate goal in two previous state finals.
The Huskies finally got what they wanted Saturday night — by making the most of an imperfect play.
Senior Eli Bussell mishandled the center snap on a 37-yard field goal try by Devon Varney but picked up the loose ball and raced 20 yards for a touchdown as time expired, lifting MCI to a stunning come-from-behind 20-14 victory over Lisbon in the Class D state championship game at Fitzpatrick Stadium.
“We always have a ‘fire’ call but Eli just made a play,” said MCI coach Tom Bertrand. “I think he was going to throw the ball but he saw a lane and went. He just made a play. They’ve been doing it all year.”
The victory capped off an undefeated season for MCI, which finished 12-0 in securing the school’s first state title in football since 1974.
Lisbon, which advanced to the state final with a last-second win in the Class D South title game, wound up 8-2.
MCI trailed 14-0 at halftime but tied the game with 3:47 left in the game on a 98-yard drive that ended when quarterback Josh Buker ran 19 yards before pitching the ball to Bussell, who went the final two yards to the end zone.
The Huskies then got the ball back at their own 23 with 40.1 seconds left after Seth Bussell sacked Lisbon quarterback Tyler Halls for an 8-yard loss that eventually forced the Greyhounds to punt.
Buker then gave the Huskies a chance, his scrambles of 17, 21 and 19 yards putting MCI in position to attempt a tying field goal with 3.1 seconds left.
Varney, who had practiced field goals at the other end of the field during pregame warmups, had to wait as Lisbon coach Dick Mynahan — retiring after 30 years of leading the Greyhounds — called a “freezing” timeout on this misty evening.
The center snap ultimately was accurate, but Eli Bussell was unable to handle it cleanly. It didn’t get away from him, however, and the senior captain picked it up and began to run.
Bussell got to the right sideline with the idea of passing downfield to teammate Adam Bertrand. But with his potential receiver covered he opted to keep running, and Bertrand’s comeback block near the 5-yard line enabled Bussell to finish the play and set off a celebration that had been building since the end of MCI’s winless 2012 campaign.
“I’m just thinking, ‘get away from the middle and see if anything’s open downfield,’” said Bussell. “First I was thinking pass, but I saw an opening, and Adam made a great block.
“It’s amazing. It feels impossible to put into words. It’s the best feeling I’ve ever had.”
The 20-yard dash was by far Bussell’s longest run of the night for an MCI offense that struggled at times save for the versatile play of Buker. He scrambled away from Lisbon’s relentless defensive pursuit effectively enough to complete 15 of 26 passes for 192 yards and a touchdown and an interception and also rush for 90 yards on 22 carries.
“He’s the playmaker, the catalyst of the offense,” said coach Bertrand. “He wasn’t going in the first half, but I told him you need to be on your toes and start making plays and trust yourself and trust your teammates. He did that, and he made things happen as did a lot of other kids.”
Junior David Young had eight catches for 70 yards for the Huskies, while Bertrand had four catches for 86 yards.
Senior quarterback Tyler Halls paced Lisbon with 20 rushes for 100 yards and 49 yards on three pass completions.
The lightning-quick Halls scored on runs of 4 and 10 yards during the second quarter to give Lisbon a 14-0 halftime lead against an MCI team that was hurting itself with key penalties.
But the Huskies proved resilient, and finally broke through the Lisbon defense when Buker passed from near midfield over the middle to Bertrand, who made the catch at the 25 and raced across to the left sideline. He finished off the 58-yard touchdown play by bowling over a Greyhound defender at the goal line.
Varney’s extra-point kick cut the deficit to 14-7 with 3:16 left in the period.
MCI came up empty on its next possession, and further comeback inroads weren’t looking especially good when Halls kicked a 37-yard punt out of bounds at the Huskies’ 2 with 7:47 left in the game.
But 98 yards later the game was tied, and for MCI the best still was yet to come.
“We weren’t going to panic,” said coach Bertrand. “We needed to just keep doing what we do because we knew we were playing a very good football team that was taking it to us. We knew they might wear down and that our conditioning might kick in, our kids just made plays and believed.
“It could have gone the other way if some different things had happened, but it’s our time and our kids made it happen.”