Call it a comeback; Bedford rallies past Merrimack, vies for title Saturday

BEDFORD – The Bulldogs were one play away from elimination.

Trailing by a touchdown lead with only 2.9 seconds left on the clock, Bedford’s last-gasp pass fall incomplete and Merrimack began to celebrate a trip to the Division I championship game. The jubilation was short-lived, and would soon be reversed.

The Tomahawks were flagged for pass interference, and the Bulldogs capitalized with a 5-yard touchdown pass from Connor Robert to Noah Chaberek. The duo hooked up for a score on the first play in overtime, the Bulldog defense held and Bedford prevailed with a come-from-behind 27-20 triumph in the Division I semifinals at Bulldog Stadium.

The improbable win came after Merrimack built a 14-point cushion at halftime and led 20-7 early in the fourth quarter.

"They’re fighters," Bedford coach Derek Stank said. "At that point in time, there was no other option. It was either do it, or the season is over."

It took a gutsy effort from Bedford to turn the tables.

The Tomahawks drained more than six minutes off the clock in the fourth quarter, forcing Bedford to use all of its timeouts, but were stopped on a fourth-and-6 at the Bulldog 22.

"They’re a good football team, so we kind of expected them to make a run," Merrimack coach Kip Jackson said. "But at the end of the fourth when they burned their timeouts, we really wanted to make another first down obviously to be able to kill the clock and we just couldn’t do it."

Robert orchestrated the Bedford offense with a plethora of quick passes, marching the Bulldogs 78 yards in 14 plays.

"They had no other option but to respond," Stank said. "They couldn’t drop a ball. They couldn’t stay in bounds. They couldn’t make a mistake. They had to respond and they were able to do that."

Bedford’s quick passing negated Merrimack’s pass rush. The Bulldogs didn’t have a completion of greater than 14 yards during the game-tying drive.

"We were on our heels a little bit and we had zero pressure because of the type of passes that they were throwing," Jackson said. "In the first half, we were able to get pressure on them because they were trying to throw the ball down the field."

The momentary end of Bedford’s season came when a pass over the middle from the 10-yard line fell incomplete, but the flag came out and extended the game.

"I thought the ball was tipped, but none of the officials saw it," Jackson said. "What (the officials) see matters a lot more than what I see."

With the ball at the 5, Robert tossed a fade to the front-left pylon and the 6-foot-4 Chaberek reeled it in. Bedford had possession first in overtime and Robert found Chabarek in the end zone on first down.

Merrimack ran twice for 1 yard, and the next two passes fell incomplete, igniting a raucous Bedford celebration.

"Going into that overtime, it was just a matter of taking what we had – that momentum, that energy – and using it to get the victory," Stank said.

Merrimack struck first in the opening quarter when Justin Grassini hit Danny Vanecek for a 45-yard touchdown pass down the sideline.

The Tomahawks wasted a few opportunities to extend the lead, but capitalized at the end of the half. A 38-yard pass from Alec Bronchuk to Justin Weiser sparked the Tomahawks, who capped the five-play, 64-yard scoring march with a 13-yard pass from Grassini to Weiser with 29.3 seconds left in the half.

Bedford got on the board after cashing in on one of five Grassini interceptions, covering 17 yards in four plays. A 2-yard plunge from Robert trimmed it to 14-7 with 3:45 left in the third.

However, Merrimack answered with a 13-play, 69-yard scoring drive punctuated by a 1-yard touchdown run from Joe Eichman.

Bedford collected more points off turnovers when a Lucien Mumpini interception of Grassini set the Bulldogs up on the Bedford 36. The Bulldogs went 64 yards – converting a fourth-and-4 along the way – and Robert scored on a 7-yard scamper to cut the deficit to 20-13 with 7:48 left.

Eichman made a tremendous catch on a 19-yard gain to extend Merrimack’s attempt to kill the clock, but Bedford eventually took over and the rest is now history.

"Once we started completing the passes, we knew what we could do," Robert said. "We were just playing with our hearts."

Robert finished 22 of 36 passing for 198 yards with two scores and two interceptions and also gained 47 rushing yards on 13 carries. Chaberek led Bedford with nine catches for 51 yards and two TDs, while Liam Greene’s four catches for 42 yards all came on the final drive of regulation. Nick Leahy led Bedford with 52 rushing yards on 11 attempts.

Grassini completed 26 of 49 passes for 256 yards with two scores and five interceptions, although one came on a desperation throw on fourth-and-long. Vanecek led the Tomahawks with eight catches for 105 yards and a score, while Weiser (eight catches, 76 yards, TD), Eichman (121 total yards, TD, interception) and Tyler DeNeill (86 total yards, interception) were all productive.

Bedford will take on Exeter – a 23-20 overtime winner over Nashua North – for the championship on Saturday at the University of New Hampshire starting at 6 p.m.