MANKATO — How often does a high-school football game between No. 1 and No. 2 hold up to the hype?
Who cares! It did Friday night at Todnem Field.
"We have a lot of stuff to work on, but we also did some great things tonight," Mankato West senior receiver Will Claussen said. "If they're the No. 1 team and we're that close, I feel good about our future."
Carter McCauley's 38-yard field on the last play allowed Owatonna, the No. 1-rated team in Class AAAAA, to defeat No. 2 West 24-21 in a Big Nine Conference football game Friday night before a huge crowd at Todnem Field. The teams were never more than one score apart, and it was tied for most of the game.
"It was a great chess match really," West coach Mark Esch said. "I think (Owatonna) got a little discouraged in their run game, and they threw it pretty well in the first half. Owatonna ran the ball pretty well in the second half, and when they do that, it never surprises me. That's what they love to do."
The teams combined for 404 yards of offense in the first half, with Owatonna passing for 219 yards and the Scarlets passing for 139 yards.
But the key play was a fumble by West. Facing second down at the Owatonna 3, the ball popped loose, and Owatonna recovered.
"That was the key play of the game," Esch said. "It could have been a lot different if we get in there."
Instead, the Huskies went 90 yards in six plays, scoring on a 41-yard pass from Ian Langeberg to Ty Sullivan for a 7-0 lead.
West answered in the second quarter, a one-play drive on a 51-yard pass from Ryan Schlichte to Claussen. Andrew Opsal's PAT made it 7-7.
West got another score just before halftime as the same combo hooked up from 19 yards on a perfectly thrown fade to the corner.
Owatonna changed tactics at halftime, pounding the ball with two tight ends and featuring tailback Aaron Peterson, who rushed for 269 yards in last season's state quarterfinal victory over West. Peterson carried seven straight times, and Owatonna scored on a play-action pass to tie the game at at 14 at 6:34 of the third quarter.
Owatonna threatened to pull away on its next drive, an 11-play drive that started with 10 runs and ended with a play-action pass that covered 10 yards for a 21-14 lead.
"We had a lot of momentum at halftime, and I think we came out a little flat in the third quarter," Claussen said. "But we came back."
West tied the game with an impressive, six-play drive that covered 45 yards. Travon Jones had a 17-yard runs, and Schlichte carried four times for 25 yards, bulling in from the 1 for the score. Opsal's third PAT tied the game with 7:18 remaining.
"It wasn't looking good," Claussen said. "But we showed we had some guts and some fight left in us."
Each team had the ball once but had to punt. Owatonna's final possession started at the 32 with 2:22 to play. A 32-yard pass play moved the ball into West territory, and McCauley boomed the field goal that was high, long and perfect, ending a game between two teams that can can claim to be at the top of their class.
"This was a heat-breaking loss, but I'm not feeling bad," Esch said. "I was proud of the kids. They battled and battled, and it came down to the wire. If they're No. 1, I feel pretty good about where we are."
West ended up with 254 yards of offense, having only 19 plays in the second half. Schlichte was 14 of 26 for 170 yards passing, with Claussen catching six passes for 102 yards and two scores.
Owatonna had 30 plays in the second half and gained 204 yards, bringing their game total to 443. The Huskies had 219 yards passing in the first half and 12 yards rushing in the second.
West (2-1) plays at Rochester John Marshall on Friday. Esch said that his team felt pretty good after the game, and if they can start another winning streak, who knows what could happen. The teams would be in opposite brackets if they both advanced to the state playoffs.
"If this was a playoff game, it would have been heart-breaking. But it was Week 3. There's a lot of football to play."