Watching someone steal the spotlight from Columbia’s Chris Smith didn’t seem very likely Friday night at Shenendehowa. Corey Acker, however, did just that.
A senior tailback, Acker scored four touchdowns, three of them of the classic highlight-reel variety, to lift the Plainsmen to a 34-12 win over the Blue Devils in a Class AA semifinal at Steuerwald Stadium. The victory puts Shenendehowa (8-1) into next Friday’s Class AA Super Bowl against Shaker, a 28-21 winner over Schenectady in the other semifinal.
Columbia’s loss spoiled an outstanding performance by Smith, the Blue Devils’ talented senior tailback who carried his club to a 12-6 lead just before half. But when Shenedehowa scored on Ryan Buss’s perfect 45-yard pass to Acker with just 28 seconds left before intermission, it gave the Plainsmen a 13-12 lead and plenty of momentum.
“I think the turning point was right at the end of the first half when we got the ball back and scored,” said Shenendehowa coach Brian Clawson. “That was a great pass by Ryan. It was a huge momentum shift, and it really got us jacked up at halftime. Then we were able to make a few defensive adjustments in the second half to stop Chris Smith. He’s a heckuva football player, and I told our defense, ‘It’s 11 hats to the football.’ You need 11 kids to contain him, and our guys did it in the second half. It was a total team effort.”
Acker, who had scored earlier on a nine-yard run, outraced the Columbia secondary to track down Buss’ long and lofty pass at around Columbia’s 10-yard line. Once he was behind the defense with the ball, no one was going to catch him, as the Blue Devils (5-4) found out later in the game on Acker’s 75-yard touchdown run in the third period and a 64-yard scoring jaunt in the fourth period.
“Corey Acker is a phenomenal football player, and he rose to the occasion in a very important game,” said Clawson. “He had three plays that were all from the highlight reel.”
Both teams moved the ball well in the first half, and on three occasions in the first two quarters, Columbia head coach Craig Cavotta gambled on fourth down and went for it. On each occasion, Smith lined up in the shotgun and took the snap, twice running for a first down and also completing a jump pass to Jacob Foss for a short gain and another first down.
His first touchdown, a 76-yard run around right end, came with 3:36 left in the first quarter and tied the game at 6-6; his second touchdown, from just a yard, capped a 90-yard, 13-play drive. Smith ran the ball 10 times during the drive and also delivered his jump pass to Foss for a first down, helping the Blue Devils to a 12-6 edge with 6:31 left in the second period.
Smith, the leading rusher in Columbia High School history, had 128 yards in 16 carries in the first half alone. He finished the game with 170 yards in 26 attempts, and drew praise from the player who snatched the spotlight from him in the second half.
“Columbia is a great team, and Chris Smith had some big runs for them in the first half,” said Acker, who finished with 161 yards on just six rushes and caught two passes for 56 yards. “But our defense really stepped up in the second half and stopped him. It was a great effort by everybody.”
The only score of the third period came with just 30 seconds left, when Acker took a pitch from Buss and went 75 yards for a touchdown. The play had some trouble developing and seemed destined for a short gain until Acker suddenly broke to his right and outraced the Columbia defense into the end zone.
A Columbia turnover following the ensuing kickoff set up Marcelino Christie’s nine-yard run early in the fourth period for Shenendehowa, and then Acker, much like he did on his 75-yard touchdown, took what looked like a nothing play, broke to his left and went down the sideline 64 yards for his fourth touchdown of the game with 8:12 left to play.
The victory sets up a rematch with Shaker, which posted a 35-8 win over the Plainsmen earlier in the season.
“That was a bad night for us, and Shaker deserves plenty of credit,” said Acker. “But to get the opportunity to play them again in the championship game is great. I can’t even describe it. This is what we’ve been looking forward to.”
Columbia 6 6 0 0 — 12
Shenendehowa 6 7 7 14 — 34
S — Acker, 9 run (kick failed).
C — Smith, 76 run (run failed).
C — Smith, 1 run (run failed).
S — Acker, 45 pass from R. Buss (Vilardi kick).
S — Acker, 75 run (Vilardi kick).
S — Christie , 9 run (Vilardi kick).
S — Acker, 64 run (Vilardi kick).