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Dodge City, KS-When Dodge City started 6-1 in 2015, all signs pointed to a long playoff run. But a 1-4 finish that also saw the Law squander a late lead at home vs. Sioux City in the regular-season finale, officially eliminated Dodge City from the playoffs. It was a sour ending to such a promising start.
“We try not to look back,” Head Coach Sean Ponder said. “But we’ve had some good starts; we just need to learn how to finish.”
And that was no easy task coming off the second-worst loss in franchise history. But when it mattered the most, Ponder pushed all chips to the middle of the table.
Following Lucian Walker’s five-yard touchdown run that gave Duke City (4-5) the lead with 16 seconds remaining, Trey Dudley answered resoundingly with a 40-yard kickoff return for a score, giving the Law a dramatic 65-62 victory over the Gladiators Saturday night at United Wireless Arena.
“Wow!” Ponder said afterwards. “What a finish. What a great play by Dudley. The front line blocked really well all night long, and that was a heck of an ending.”
In many people’s minds, it should never have come to that. But a sequence early in the final period gave Duke City life.
Leading by nine with 14:30 remaining in the game, Ponder had a decision to make. His team was facing a fourth-and-5 at the Gladiators’ 15: go for it or kick the field goal and try to push the lead to 12.
“I will second guess myself on a lot of things,” Ponder said. “But we felt that was our best option.”
Ponder rolled the dice, and the play was there. Daniel McKinney slipped behind the defense and was wide open in the back-left corner of the end zone. But quarterback Rudy Johnson’s throw went right through his hands, giving Duke City the ball back at their own 15.
“It was there,” Ponder explained. “That’s a ball that nine times out of 10, McKinney comes up with. That time it didn’t work out.”
That was the little sliver of hope that Duke City needed to stay alive. Donovan Porterie, who lit up the Dodge City (8-2) secondary to the tune of 309 yards, answered with a 22-yard hookup to Julian Walker and a 12-yard completion to Dexter Manley that put the Gladiators in scoring position. Three plays later, Porterie found the end zone from a yard out to pull Duke City to within two 50-48.
And although Dodge City scored on their next possession when running back Willie Jackson hit pay dirt on the heels of one-yard rushing touchdown, the foundation was set for Duke City to steal one on the road.
“It was a great game,” Ponder said. “That’s (Duke City) a good football team, and they made us earn everything tonight.”
After Porterie hit Sedrick Johnson on a crossing pattern for a 21-yard touchdown that cut the Law lead to 57-55 with 3:57 to go, Ponder was faced with another decision that changed the complexity of the game.
It was fourth down again; this time the Law was had it at the Duke City 8. A touchdown would have ended the game; a field goal would have stretched the lead to five.
“We probably should have kicked the field goal,” Ponder admitted. “That’s football for you.”
Instead, Dodge City went for it. But (Rudy) Johnson’s screen pass to Jackson came up four yards shy of the end zone.
“I checked with my coaches, and they asked me if I had a play drawn up,” Ponder said. “We did, and Brandon Venson was wide open in the end zone. But we ended up going to the check down, and it obviously didn’t work.”
Down 57-55 with 1:53 to go, Porterie began directing the Gladiators towards the go-ahead score. First a 12-yard completion to Manley followed by a three-yard hookup to (Julian) Walker before going back to Manley for a 16-yard gain and a first down to the Dodge City 14.
“They had us reeling a bit on that drive,” Ponder said.
On the very next play, (Lucien) Walker found a crease for nine yards to the Law 5. At that point, Duke City Head Coach Dominic Bramanate had his own decision to make. With no timeouts and the clock running, Bramante instructed his quarterback to spike the ball, stopping the timer with 20 seconds to play.
“They didn’t have any timeouts, so I understand where he (Bramante) was coming from,” Ponder said.
Instead of winding the clock down and kicking the field goal, (Lucien) Walker scored on the next play, putting Duke City up 62-57 with 10 seconds left.
That’s all the time that Dudley needed.
The special teams star fielded Brian Weems’ squib kick at his own 10-yard line. He made one cut back move to the middle of the field before splitting two defenders en route to the end zone. (Rudy) Johnson followed that up by finding Venson along the back boards for two, giving the Law a three-point lead with 10 seconds remaining.
“It was one of those defining plays in our season,” Ponder said.
With one last chance to win it, Porterie lobbed a pass up the left sideline that sailed out of bounds, dropping the Gladiators to 0-4 lifetime vs. Dodge City, and putting a serious wrench into Duke City’s playoff hopes.
“We accomplished a lot tonight,” Ponder said. “We got the win, and we secured a playoff spot. “Now we aim to get a home-playoff game.”
It was Dodge City’s 11th straight victory at United Wireless Arena.
“These fans were unbelievable again,” Ponder said. “It’s great playing in front of them.”
After the teams were locked in an all-out war in their first meeting back in March, it was no surprise to see five lead changes in the first 30 minutes of the game; the last of those coming in the final minute of the second quarter when Johnson capped off a four-play, 26-yard drive with a 13-yard scoring toss to Marquis Deadwiler that gave Dodge City a 35-34 advantage.
On the ensuing kick, Antonio Bray was tackled in the end zone for a one-point rouge before Weems missed a 29-yard field goal. Dodge City led 36-34 at the intermission.
Dodge City kept their distance in the third quarter. (Rudy) Johnson added a pair of rushing touchdowns, and Dodge City, for most of the half, had a nine-point cushion. He finished the night with eight carries for 13 yards and three scores while completing 16-of-25 passes for 225 yards, a touchdown and a first-half interception. Deadwiler reeled in a team-best seven catches for 126 yards and a score.
Johnson’s counterpart Porterie finished 30-of-40 for 309 yards, five touchdowns and a pick. But his most costly error came in the second quarter when Ricky Wyatt knocked the ball out of his hands on a drop back. Gary Henderson recovered it and rumbled 25 yards to the end zone for a touchdown.
Bray added 21 yards on the ground and another 24 yards receiving and two scores for Duke City. (Julian) Walker had eight catches for 80 yards and a touchdown.
Next up: Dodge City vs. Texas, Saturday, May 27-6 p.m. pregame; 6:35 p.m. kickoff on 98.1 FM; westernkansasnews.com/z98 and KSKZ mobile app