LINCOLN — Exeter-Milligan was turnover-prone until the end Monday, yet the Timberwolves emerged as the Eight Man-1 state champions.
James Sluka accounted for all three Timberwolves touchdowns, the last a 49-yard pass play to Kyle Jensen, for a 20-18 comeback win over Hemingford at Memorial Stadium.
Top-ranked Exeter-Milligan (13-0) fell behind 18-0 by supplying the No. 10 Bobcats (12-1) with four turnovers, then held them scoreless in the second half.
Sluka gave them a final chance by fumbling a snap with 1:29 left one play after he intercepted a Hemingford pass.
“A stupid mistake,’’ he said. “I didn’t get my hands in there very good. I was worried but I knew our defense could do it.”
Hemingford quarterback Matt Wood picked up 12 yards on fourth-and-3 at the E-M 28 to keep the final drive alive.
He looked for tight end Colt Foster in the end zone on the next two plays. The first pass was incomplete, then Kyle Jensen came up with the game-saving interception with 54 seconds left.
“We finally got it done,’’ Sluka said. “Last year left a bad taste in our mouth and this year we knew this is our year. We had to make it here and get it done.’’
Sluka also was pressed into service as the starting quarterback for the Timberwolves last year, when they fell 40-14 to defending champion Elgin/Pope John.
Both years, seasonlong starting quarterback Nolan White was hurt late in the season.
“(This time) we lost him on both sides of the ball, which really hurt,” Exeter-Milligan coach Dean Filipi said. “It’s a tribute again to the kids’ character. They got together, rallied around themselves. I thought they got closer as a unit and they did a great job, not only today but through the playoffs.”
Hemingford converted three of the four first-half miscues — two fumbles and two interceptions — into scores. The Bobcats’ touchdown drives covered 12, 23 and 31 yards.
After Foster caught a 12-yard pass from Wood, Ethan Skinner scored on a 21-yard run and Brady Turek went 4 yards for the score that gave the Bobcats an 18-0 lead with 31 seconds left in the half.
Enough time, though, for Exeter-Milligan to get a momentum-swinging touchdown. It had to go only 30 yards after Jensen’s 42-yard kickoff return.
Sluka threw to Jensen for 25 yards. After Jensen went for no gain from the 5, Sluka’s run up the middle after two defenders missed him in the backfield ended the half and his two-point conversion run proved to be the difference.
“Sluka is a great player,’’ Hemingford coach Jordan Haas said. “Give him a lot of credit. I thought a couple of times we had him tackled for a loss, had him sacked, and we just couldn’t get him on the ground.”
Both of Sluka’s second-half touchdown passes were on plays where he eluded the pass rush.
In the third quarter he retreated into his end zone before throwing across his body to Derek Luzum at the 14. Luzum broke away past midfield for a 68-yard touchdown that brought the Wolves to within 18-14.
Hemingford held the Timberwolves scoreless on their next three possessions. The Bobcats got to the Exeter-Milligan 21 before Garrett Pribyl and Jesse Hall tackled Wood short of the first down on fourth-and 3.
A pass interference penalty on third-and-16 helped Jensen pick up a first down on the next play, then he floated open along the Hemingford sideline while Sluka was avoiding a two-man rush.
“We couldn’t get it going in the second half,” Haas said. “Anytime we thought we had a chance to get something going, we stalled out and Exeter-Milligan made some plays.”
Hemingford (12-1) ................................. 6 12 0 0—18
Exeter-Milligan (13-0) ............................. 0 8 6 6—20
H: Colt Foster 12 pass from Matt Wood (run failed)
H: Ethan Skinner 22 run (run failed)
H: Brady Turek 4 run (run failed)
EM: James Sluka 5 run (Sluka run)
EM: Derek Luzum 68 pass from Sluka (run failed)
EM: Kyle Jensen 49 pass from Sluka (run failed)