Senior quarterback Jordan Whitney threw a 31-yard touchdown pass to Nate Backus on fourth down with 4:50 remaining and top-seeded Mt. Blue clinched a 33-21 victory over No. 4 Gardiner in the Pine Tree Conference semifinals at Kemp Field Friday night.

The Cougars (10-0) advanced to their second consecutive PTC championship game and will host the winner of Saturday’s other semifinal between No. 7 Belfast and No. 6 Waterville.

After Brad Weston sacked Whitney to set up 4th and long, the Cougars sent Backus on a corner route down the right sideline. The junior got behind the defense and hauled the pass in in the end zone to break Gardiner’s momentum and make it a two-score game.

“Coach (Gary Parlin) has been wanting to get that pass all year. Ever since I was a sophomore he was like ‘We’re going to get one of those corner passes,'” Whitney said. “He called it and I knew he was going to be open. Nate made a great catch.”

“We have tried to run that corner route… (former Mt. Blue running back) Izaiah Tracy caught it every day in practice and we never caught it once in a game,” Parlin said.

The touchdown capped a spectacular night for Whitney, Mt. Blue’s Fitzpatrick Trophy hopeful. He completed all seven of his pass attempts for 173 yards and three touchdowns and ran for 136 yards and another score.

“He did that (last) drive by himself, with determination,” Parlin said. “Coaches always told me anyone whose worth their salt as a coach (knows) when it’s tight, get the ball in your best players’ hands.”

For a while it seemed regardless of who the Cougars gave the ball in the second half, it would slip out of their hands. Two fumbles helped Gardiner rally from a 27-7 deficit to within a touchdown early in the fourth quarter on Seth Wing’s five-yard touchdown run.

“We tried to find some holes in their defense and get Stevie (Sirois) going a little bit more and we were able to do that,” Gardiner coach Matt Burgess said. “The offensive line came together and we were moving the ball and had some timely passing to get a couple more scores.”

In the first half, it was Mt. Blue that had the perfect balance of run and pass. Whitney rushed for 99 yards in the first quarter, including a 14-yard touchdown, and hooked up with Backus, who had four catches for 118 yards and two touchdowns, on a 33-yard TD pass. A 23-yard TD pass to Kindle Bonsall made it 21-0 Cougars midway through the second quarter.

Led by Chad Luker and Zak Kendall, Mt. Blue’s defense limited Gardiner (6-4) to 96 yards in the first half, containing both Sirois (27 carries, 88 yards) and QB Dennis Meehan (nine carries, 46 yards, 4 for 10 passing for 44 yards).

“Dustin Richards and Zak Kendall did a great job tonight keeping (Meehan) inside the pocket,” Parlin said. “Once he gets outside and has pass-run option, he’s extremely tough.”

“Meehan likes to throw the football on the run, so all week we preached my first step was outside to make sure he didn’t get outside,” Kendall said.”I was covering him all night, and Chad makes tackles wherever the football is.”

Gardiner employed a fake field goal to finally get on the board late in the first half. Holder Tyler Jamison converted it with an eight-yard run to give the Tigers one more play, Meehan’s four-yard TD run with 1.7 seconds left in the half to make it 21-7.

Meehan kept the halftime deficit at two touchdowns with a TD-saving tackle on Backus on the ensuing kickoff at his own 13. But the Cougars regained their three-score cushion on the opening drive of the second half, which Luker (16 carries, 65 yards) capped with a nine-yard TD run.

But Mt. Blue had trouble holding onto and controlling the pigskin after that. A snap sailed high over Whitney’s head and into the end zone, where it was recovered by Sirois to make it 27-14.

Another fumble, recovered by Gardiner’s Darian Donahue at Mt. Blue’s 22, set up Wing’s TD run with 10:05 left and set the big home crowd on edge. But the Cougars, who survived a first-round scare against Mt. Desert Island last week, gave the ball to Whitney and Backus (three carries, 65 yards) on every play of the game-clinching drive.

“We put last week behind us, but it kept coming back to us in the back of all of our minds,” Kendall said. “The second half was a whole new game and we came out there knowing we had to focus. We had to play it like it’s the last play of the game, the last play of  our career, because it could be.”

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