WOODBURY — Adversity arrived early in Friday’s Suburban East Conference football game, but Stillwater took control in the second half and held on for a 20-18 victory over Woodbury.
The Ponies (1-0 SEC, 1-0) recovered from a miserable first quarter and survived some anxious moments late in the fourth to knock off Woodbury (0-1, 0-1) in the season opener for the second year in a row.
Stillwater’s inauspicious start included Royals running back Quran Al-Hameed breaking free for an 80-yard touchdown on the first play of the game — and the Ponies not gaining a first down until the second quarter.
Even with Stillwater scoring twice in the third quarter to take a 20-12 lead, the Royals didn’t back down while outgaining the Ponies 148-16 in the fourth quarter and pulling within two points on Al-Hameed’s third touchdown of the game with more than eight minutes remaining.
The Royals drove 75 yards in the final three minutes to set up a potential game-winning field goal, but Colton Johnson’s 32-yard attempt fell short as Stillwater escaped with a hard-fought victory between evenly matched teams.
“It’s awesome,” said Ponies running back Nick Anderson, who scored two touchdowns and finished with 95 yards on 21 carries. “They came out fired up and had something to prove from last year, but we weathered the storm.”
It was an uneven performance offensively for the Ponies while doing most of their damage in the second and third quarters against an experienced Woodbury defense. Stillwater’s first big play of the night came from someone who didn’t even play football a year ago as senior Joey Quinn hauled in a 63-yard touchdown pass on a third-and 17 play midway through the second quarter.
The Ponies had accomplished little offensively, which might explain why Woodbury felt comfortable accepting a holding penalty on the previous third down play rather than forcing Stillwater to punt on fourth-and-7 near midfield.
That decision haunted the Royals after quarterback Nate Ricci threw over the top to Quinn, who was well covered on the play but came down with the ball and scampered the rest of the way for a touchdown.
“The best part of that whole scenario is having the belief that you can make a play, even though third-and-17 at that point in the game for our offense seemed like third-and-a-mile,” Stillwater coach Beau LaBore said. “The fact that we stuck with it — Nate extended the play and a first-year football player made a great play — is just a great attribute for our team.”
Woodbury answered with an 80-yard drive of it’s own, capped by Al-Hameed’s 37-yard touchdown with 4:19 remaining in the half for a 12-7 lead. In what turned out to be a key factor in the game, the Royals failed to convert the two-point conversion after earlier missing the extra-point kick after Al-Hameed’s touchdown to start the game.
Stillwater was driving late in the first half before Ricci was intercepted inside the Woodbury 20, but after getting outplayed early, the Ponies still felt fortunate to be trailing by just five points at the intermission.
“Giving up an 80-yarder and having three three-and-outs in the first quarter, I didn’t think was possible for us, to be honest with you,” LaBore said. “At the same time, I’m incredibly happy with the fact that our players stuck with it and the pad level got lower and the physicality came up.
“Offensively, it was a dreadful first quarter, followed by some promise in the second quarter and at halftime we knew what we wanted to do. We made our adjustments primarily in the second quarter and knew what we wanted to do. Our guys stuck to it and we got stronger as the game went on.”
Woodbury outgained the Ponies 396-316, but Stillwater held an edge in the special teams department with senior Danny Laudet averaging seven additional yards per punt, a 4-0 advantage in touchbacks on kickoffs and converting two of three extra-point kicks.
The turning point in the second half was also sparked by an on-side kick that Matt Ogren recovered at the Woodbury 29 with 5:15 remaining in the third.
Anderson scampered for a 27-yard touchdown to give the Ponies a 13-12 lead and Woodbury was called for a late hit penalty on the play. Taking those 15 yards on the ensuing kickoff, Stillwater recovered an on-side kick and scored two minutes later for a 20-12 lead.
Ricci found Matt Anderson for 11 yards and a first down before Nick Anderson scored his second touchdown from 14 yards out to complete the short drive.
“That was huge, scoring and then getting the ball back and taking away the morale of their team just like it did the first play on us,” Nick Anderson said.
Stillwater managed just two first downs the rest of the game, but survived thanks to a defense that allowed plenty of yards but just six points in the second half. The Royals are not an easy offense to prepare for with so many shifts, different formations and talented skill players, but LaBore credited linebackers Cody Floen, Sam Hodnefield and Nick Ogren for maintaining order on the field.
“It helps to have some veteran linebackers back there,” the coach said. “Those guys were making sure we’re lined up right, especially Cody Floen directing traffic, can’t be underscored.
“Our defense was solid. They sprung some plays and they’re a very good team so they’re going to, but outside of the 80-yarder we stuck to it.”
Aaron Romportl made a key play with Woodbury on the move in the fourth quarter when he intercepted Sawyer Moon near midfield with six minutes remaining. The Ponies were unable to gain a first down, but forced the Royals to start the final series from their own 10.
Ricci was limited to 50 yards on 15 attempts, but he spread the ball around while completing 9 of 17 passes for 171 yards and a touchdown — completing passes to six different receivers.
“We have some depth at receiver, that’s very encouraging,” LaBore said. “We have an interesting mix of guys. We have some size, we have some speed, we have some quickness, but none of them are maybe the big-time recruit receiver — but all of our guys have certain attributes and they use them very well. That’s also a credit to Nate and the vast majority of time he’s trying to take what the defense is giving him and he’s not zeroed in on a particular person on a particular play.”
It was an important win for the Ponies, especially with so many new players making their first start against a veteran Woodbury squad.
“We came back in there and got better and better,” Anderson said. “We have some young linemen in their first varsity game and I can say from experience last year that is tough. They got better and better and it’s going to be fun the rest of the season because we’ve got a good line.”
Stillwater 0 7 13 0 — 20
Woodbury 6 6 0 6 — 18
Wo — Quaron Al-Hameed 80 run (kick failed) 11:45.
St — Joey Quinn 63 pass from Nate Ricci (Danny Laudet kick) 7:08.
Wo — Al-Hameed 37 run (pass failed) 4:19.
St — Nick Anderson 27 run (kick failed) 5:19.
St — Anderson 14 run (Laudet kick) 3:00.
Wo — Al-Hameed 4 pass from Sawyer Moon (run failed) 8:43.
First downs 11 12
Rushes-yards 37-145 26-183
Passing yards 171 213
Total yards 316 396
Comp-Att-Int. 9-18-1 13-30-1
Fumbles/lost 0/0 0/0
Penalties/yards 7/40 6/40
Punts/avg. 5/36.0 4/29.0
Rushing — St: Nick Anderson 21-95, Nate Ricci 15-50 and team 1-0; Wo: Quaran Al-Hameed 19-173, Sawyer Moon 6-10 and Christian Alvarado 1-0.
Passing (com-att-yds-td-int) — St: Nate Ricci 9-17-171-1-1 and Trevor Tillett 0-1-0-0-0; Wo: Sawyer Moon 12-28-168-1-1, Matt Condon 1-1-45-0-0 and Nate Wallgren 0-1-0-0-0.
Receiving — St: Joey Quinn 2-83, Chris Rick 1-61, Matt Anderson 1-11, Alex Burback 1-7, Ben Gualtieri 1-6 and Jake Olson 1-3; Wo: Reid Peters 4-63, Ryan Winter 2-63, Quaran Al-Hameed 4-29, Christian Alvarado 1-25, Quinten Strub 2-21 and Tucker Benjamin 1-12.
Kickoff returns — St: Nick Anderson 2-53, Nate Ricci 1-16 and Aaron Romportl 1-0; Wo: none.
Punt returns — St: Nate Ricci 1-15; Wo: Keyshawn Lee 5-61.
Interceptions — St: Aaron Romportl 1-6; Wo: Jake Schaefer 1-11.
Fumble recoveries — St: none; Wo: none.
W L W L
Stillwater 1 0 1 0
C-D Hall 1 0 1 0
Mounds View 1 0 1 0
White Bear Lake 1 0 1 0
Park 1 0 1 0
Woodbury 0 1 0 1
Roseville 0 1 0 1 Forest Lake 0 1 0 1
Hastings 0 1 0 1
East Ridge 0 1 0 1
Week 1 results
Stillwater 20, Woodbury 18
C-D Hall 34, East Ridge 24
Mounds View 40, Hastings 6
Park 47, Forest Lake 12
White Bear Lake 13, Roseville 10
White Bear Lake at Stillwater
Woodbury at Hastings
Roseville at Park
East Ridge at Forest Lake
Mounds View at C-D Hall