Michael James found more than one way to beat the Alpena football team on Friday.
James ran for a 21-yard touchdown and added a game-winning 67-yard interception return for a touchdown as Sault Ste. Marie defeated the Wildcats 20-14 in Alpena's home opener and Mel Skillman's Alpena coaching debut.
A 39-yard touchdown pass from Tyler Pintar to Dylan Hoes gave Alpena a 14-7 lead with 9:50 left in the game, but the Blue Devils swayed the game in their favor with two touchdowns in the last 5:11.
News Photo by James Andersen
Alpena’s Tyler Pintar, right, runs with the ball during the first half of a football game on Friday at Wildcat Stadium. Chasing him on the play is Sault’s Matthew Kibble.
"It was within our grasp and we let it slip away," Skillman said. "You can't make mistakes against a good team and we made a couple that cost us dearly at the end."
After a muffed punt gave Sault the ball on Alpena's 23 with 5:18 left, Ray'nell Anderson broke through Alpena's defense for a touchdown run on the first play of the drive to knot the game at 14.
James finished with 102 yards on 17 carries and a touchdown and added 95 yards on 4-of-7 passing.
At times, Alpena (1-1) seemed able to move the ball with ease, but ultimately it was the missed opportunities that left the Wildcats kicking themselves. A win would have given Alpena it's first 2-0 start since 2004.
Alpena got the ball on its own 35 with 5:11 left and marched into Blue Devils' territory. Jordan Ferguson burst through the defense on a second-down play and ran 47 yards to the endzone for what appeared to be the go-ahead touchdown. A flag was thrown almost immediately after Ferguson took off and the play was called back because of an illegal procedure.
The Wildcats stalled the rest of the drive and on a 2nd-and-16 play, Pintar's pass ended up in James' hands and he raced to paydirt to put Sault ahead for good.
James intercepted Pintar three times including on each of Alpena's last two drives.
Alpena got one last chance with 1:18 left, but gained just 15 yards before James intercepted Pintar again to ice the game.
Pintar was 17-of-32 for 171 yards passing and added 50 yards on 11 carries.
The game was scoreless entering the third quarter, but James put Sault (1-1) on the board first with a 21-yard touchdown run on the Blue Devils' first drive.
Alpena answered its next possession. Off of a 50-yard kick-off return by Ferguson, the Wildcats needed just seven plays to score. After missing a few plays in the series with an injury, Pintar found Tim Atkinson on a 17-yard slant for a touchdown with 6:08 left in the quarter. Sault kept a 7-6 lead after Alpena missed the PAT.
Ferguson led Alpena with 63 yards on 13 carries. Hoes had five catches for 80 yards and Atkinson had five catches for 39 yards.
Sault got inside the Alpena 30-yard line on its next drive before Dylan Glennie recovered a fumble. Alpena was unable to capitalize however and punted on its next drive.
"Oh heavens yes (there's still room to improve). We haven't added anything new, we just didn't execute some things we wanted to do," Skillman said. "We had a chance to win and we let it slip away."
Neither team was able to take much of an advantage in the first half as each side punted on its first two drives.
Alpena began a drive on its own 8-yard line with 11:08 left in the second quarter and marched down the field with a series of well-timed plays. On 4th-and-5 at Alpena's 22, Pintar hit Kaleb Smith with a nine-yard pass. Four plays later, Pintar raced up the middle of the field for 33 yards. On a later fourth-down try, Pintar found another hole and ran for 14 yards and a first down.
The Wildcats kept the drive alive and got to within a few yards of the endzone, but were set back by a penalty, an incomplete pass and a run that saw Pintar pulled down in the backfield. Alpena settled for a field goal try and Brad Styma missed from 35 yards.
Skillman liked his team's perseverance and hopes that his team will be able to regroup as Alpena opens Big North Conference play next week at Ogemaw Heights.
"I liked our comebackness, because we got behind and we came back," Skillman said We weren't just out there fooling around. I told them at the end, 'You've got 1:18 we need a touchdown and an extra point to win let's go get it.'"
James Andersen can be reached via email at email@example.com or by phone at 358-5694. Follow James on Twitter @ja_alpenanews.