WINTHROP —  It may have seemed like a good idea at the time and it almost worked.

But the fourth-down gamble that Winthrop-Monmouth opted for Friday night proved to be a fatal blow to their playoff hopes.

Dirigo made the defensive stop, got the ball back at the Rambler’s 26 and scored just three players later. It proved to be the game-winner in a stunning 22-20 Western D semifinal win. 

Dirigo (7-3) advances to the regional final next Saturday and while top-seeded Winthrop-Monmouth bows out at 9-1.

“We tried to get them to bite on something and it didn’t work,” said Winthrop-Monmouth coach Joel Stoneton about the crucial fourth-down and six from their own 21 with about 2:30 left to play.  Instead of punting, the Ramblers rushed it up the middle. “We should have won that game. I made a bad call and I own that. We tried to get them to come up and bite so there wouldn’t be a chance for a return. I over thought it. I simply should have kicked it away. I had the wind at my back and everything.”

The rush fell two yards shy of the first down. Dirigo took over and three plays later. Heath Hersom broke one down the left sideline for an 18-yard run.

“We knew it was do or die at that point,” Hersom said. “I bobbled the snap and picked it up and ran left. I saw an opening and just put my head down.”

Winthrop got the ball back with 1:27 left. A grounding call on an incompletion backed them up to the 34. Then two plays later Brett Beauchesne picked off a pass to seal the win.

It was a significant defensive stand by Dirigo that enabled the Cougars to get the ball back. Dirigo watched a lengthy drive stall at the 20 with about four minutes remaining. The Ramblers took over on downs but couldn’t run the clock too well. Dirigo held them to just three yards on three plays, forcing the punt.

“We thought about trying to block it, but we needed to stay in the defensive mold so that they couldn’t get that fake over,” Dirigo coach Dave Crutchfield said. “We’ve seen too many fake punts this year.”

Dirigo used a physical offensive attack that bullied the Ramblers and controlled the ball and the clock. The Cougars finished with 358 yards on 62 carries. Winthrop-Monmouth could muster just 157 total yards — 95 yards on the ground on 26 carries.  The Ramblers had just four possessions the entire second half, two of those came in the final four minutes and consisted of four plays or less.

“Dirigo outcoached me tonight,” Stoneton said. “They had a fantastic game plan. We lost a lot of offensive time because they managed the ball and we couldn’t step up physically to stop that. Kudos to them. They had a great game plan.”

Beauchesne finished with 115 yards on 29 carries while Tyler Frost added 105 yards on 24 tries. Hersom rushed for 93 yards on 17 opportunities. Dirigo had tried to use a power game in the regular-season loss but struggled to execute. Friday, they had a full-house backfield and pounded it at the Ramblers.

“We came out in the wildcat and decided to shove it down their throats and it worked,” said Crutchfield. “That was just for this game. We wanted to go to a hurry up offense, but we knew we didn’t have the stamina to do it all the time. But we wanted to put the ball in our best player’s hands. When Tyler Frost carries the ball more then 10 times, we’ve done well. Brett Beauchsene and Heath Hersom are great runners, too.”

Winthrop got the first score of the game when quarterback Jared Hanson connected with Drew Stratton on a 6-yard pass play with 37 seconds left in the first quarter.

Dirigo, which only had 26 players dressed, answered that with a length drive of 61 yards. It ended when Frost hit Kaine Hutchins on a 16-yard pass play for an 8-6 lead with 6:59 left in the half.

After a short possession, Dirigo had a chance to add to the lead late in the half but ran out of time at the 18.

It was the same pattern in the second half. Winthrop took a 12-8 lead when Zach Glazier broke one for 19 yards with 6:24 left in the third. Dirigo got the ball back and marched it downfield. Frost forced his way in from the 4 with five seconds left in the third for a 16-12 lead.

Winthrop opened the fourth with its best drive of the game. Hanson connected on five passes, including a pair of fourth-down plays that kept the drive going. Phil Rowe finished off the drive with a run up the middle from the 5. That put the Ramblers up 20-16 with 8:07 left in the game.

Dirigo threatened to score on its next drive but penalties hindered that chance. The Cougars turned the ball over on downs at the 20 with four minutes left.

“We knew it was 11 on 11 in the end,” Hersom said. “I’ll take my 11 over anybody. We’ve got a tough bunch, all 26 of us.”

Hanson finished throwing for 62 yards. Glazier led the ground game with 42 yards on 11 carries.

“We’re a little shocked right now, not because we lost, but because we had it put to us,” said Stoneton.

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