The Owls' struggled against a Quince Orchard defense that was more athletic, better able to cover their stellar corps of receivers than the previous teams they had met in the playoffs and put a lot of pressure on senior quarterback Deryk Kern, who was sacked four times.
The Cougars used that defense and good special teams play to power their 21-19 win in Friday night's Class 4A state semifinal football game before a standing-room only crowd at Westminster.
The Cougars scored the game-winner on a play that looked right out of the Owls' playbook when quarterback Matt Choi hit Elliott Davis with an 83-yard touchdown with 5:43 left in the third quarter.
After that, the Owls went three-and-out twice and the Cougars' Isaac Ankomah intercepted a Kern pass before Westminster's offense got rolling again in the final 1:19. Kern hit Bradley Metcalf twice for 43 yards and Garrett Bean once for 10 yards to start a drive that began on the Owls' 3-yard line. Two more passes to Darius Clifton put the Owls on the 20-yard line with 1.6 seconds left.
Justin Cohen attempted a 37-yard field goal that carried just wide as time expired.
Earlier in the game, the Cougars blocked a Cohen extra point and stopped the Owls when they tried for the two-point conversion after their next touchdown.
"We lost to a heck of a football team," Owls coach Brad Wilson said. "We had some crucial penalties and turnovers, but we still had an opportunity to win it. When it was 19-14 at halftime, we were feeling good and starting to click. We had gotten into a rhythm and made better decisions with the ball."
The Cougars (12-1) return to the state title game for the second straight year after falling to Old Mill last season in a 36-35 overtime thriller. On Friday at 7:30 p.m. at M&T Bank Stadium, they will go for the third state championship in school history against the winner of Saturday's other 4A semifinal between Wise (12-0) and No. 5 Meade (10-2), which defeated Old Mill in the regional finals.
The Owls (12-1) were aiming for the first state championship to put the finishing touch on a record-breaking season for their high-flying offense. In addition to a long list of Monocacy Valley Athletic League records, the Owls tied or broke four state records including Kern's 62 touchdown passes this season.
In the regionals, Kern threw for nine touchdowns and ran for three others as the Owls clobbered Blake, 51-7, and Sherwood, 62-28.
Against their third straight Montgomery County opponent, however, the Owls were slow to get going.
Quince Orchard took a 14-0 lead early in the second quarter on the second short touchdown run by Choi, who ran 25 times for 126 yards, before Kern started finding the seams in a Cougars' defense that dropped eight.
Kern, who was 25-for-46 passing for 278 yards, hit Clifton twice with short passes over the middle in a 70-yard touchdown drive that ended with a 41-yard strike to Bean.
Dan Johnson scored on a 2-yard run with 3:34 left in the first half, but with the blocked extra point, the Owls only pulled within 14-13. Less than a minute later, Jesse Binder picked off a Choi pass and the Owls converted on Kern's 4-yard pass to Metcalf to take a 19-14 lead.
"Their line opened up big holes which was tough on our defense," Johnson, also a linebacker, said. "We were pumped but their offense was wearing us down."
Bean had eight catches for 107 yards while Clifton had eight catches for 79 yards and Metcalf caught five passes for 78 yards. The Owls finished with 320 yards of offense and the Cougars with 417.
"I hurt for our guys," Wilson said. "This was a special group and it will be espcially tough to say goodbye to our seniors."
QO 7 7 7 0 -- 21
W 0 19 0 0 -- 19
QO—Choi 1 run (Barkdoll kick)
QO—Choi 5 run (Barkdoll kick)
W—Bean 41 pass from Kern (Cohen kick)
W—Johnson 2 run (kick failed)
W—Metcalf 4 run (pass failed)
QO—Davis 87 pass from Choi (Barkdoll kick)