No. 2 Mars converts late fourth down, stuns Highlands

Friday, September 18, 2020 | 10:37 PM

The Highlands Golden Rams were one play from turning in one of the best defensive performances that coach Dom Girardi has ever seen.

But that one play — a 39-yard pass from Mars quarterback Quinn Fuller to wide receiver Anthony Vargo on fourth-and-17 with just over a minute remaining — turned out to be the deciding factor in a roller coaster ride of a game.

Two plays after the crucial completion, senior running back Teddy Ruffner found the end zone from 4 yards out for his second touchdown of the game, and the No. 2 Fightin’ Planets (2-0, 2-0) completed a late comeback to upend Highlands, 12-7.

“We were one play away from probably the best defensive effort I have ever seen in my life,” Girardi said. “That doesn’t take away from the defensive effort that happened tonight either.”

Heading into the matchup, the goal for Highlands (1-1, 1-1) was to slow down Ruffner, who entered the game with 3,000-plus career rushing yards. The Golden Rams did just that, holding him to 95 yards on 26 carries. It wasn’t enough, as they committed multiple penalties and turnovers throughout the night that cost them in the end.

“They are a good team. They are a tough team, but we gave them too many opportunities with the penalties,” Girardi said. “I don’t want to take anything away from them, but they had some help tonight in terms of our mistakes and our penalties. We can’t do that, especially against a good team like that.”

The Golden Rams committed 13 penalties and turned the ball over four times with two interceptions and two crucial fumbles. Despite their costly mistakes, they still found themselves in the game because of their defensive effort.

A rare slip-up came on the first play of the game as Ruffner returned the opening kickoff 97 yards. Highlands blocked the PAT and only trailed by six for a majority of the game.

“They did a great job on (Ruffner) defensively,” Mars coach Scott Heinauer said. “But I mean, who thought he would score on the first play of the game? Nobody.”

The Highlands defense held strong until the offense got going late in the game. With four minutes left in the third quarter, Mars botched a punt snap and the Golden Rams took over on the 3-yard line.

Four plays later, sophomore Chandler Thimons hit Brock White, who also rushed for 119 yards on 29 carries, with a 9-yard dart. A DJ Loveland extra point attempt made it 7-6 and things were looking up for the home team.

But the turnover bug reared its head late in the game.

With six minutes left, Highlands blocked two straight field-goal attempts — the first was called back after Girardi called a timeout — and the Golden Rams took over on their own 15-yard line. All they needed to do was run the clock out.

They ran it three straight times. On the third, White fumbled for the second time in the game. Mars pulled through with the pass to Wooldridge to set up Ruffner’s late touchdown.

“Highlands is a good football team, and they got themselves into a battle,” Heinauer said. “But in the end, I think our kids found a way to win the football game and fortunately, we came out on top. It came down to the very end. It wasn’t a pretty game, but a win is a win sometimes.”

Mars will host Plum next week and the Golden Rams will be on the road for the second time in the first three weeks as they travel to Hampton.

Watch an archived broadcast of this game at Trib HSSN.

Greg Macafee is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Greg by email at or via Twitter .

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