Matt Novak had never kicked a 49-yard field goal in his life. The Riverside-Brookfield High School senior, who appears to be generously listed at 5-foot-11 and 180 pounds, had never even attempted a 49-yard field goal in his life, not even in practice.
But late Friday night, Novak boomed a 49-yard field goal through a light breeze as time expired on the clock to give RBHS a thrilling 23-21 victory over Morton in the season opening football game at the Martin Kennelly Athletic Complex in Brookfield.
Ironically, a minute or so before his game-winning kick, Novak had badly shanked his first attempt and the ball fell well short and to the left of the uprights. But Morton coach Bob Organ had called a second consecutive timeout just a fraction of a second before the snap in an attempt to ice Novak, so that kick did not count.
After seeing Novak miss so badly, RBHS coach Brendan Curtin considered trying some type of trick to try to pull Morton offside to at least get Novak five yards closer, but Novak told Curtin in the huddle during the time out that he needn’t bother with that.
“I knew what I had to do after that first miss, so I came back to that huddle and I told coach, ‘I got it,’” Novak said.
Novak, who also plays wide receiver and defensive back, had just won the field goal kicking job a few days earlier after battling with junior Ignace Bielobradek all summer. Curtin had decided to let Novak kick field goals while Bielobradek handled kickoffs and punting.
“He was kind of hot the last few days so we’ll give Matt the field goals, Iggy the kickoffs,” Curtin said explaining the decision.
When the ball sailed through the middle of the uprights with just a yard or two to spare, it salvaged a game in which the Bulldogs (1-0) had squandered a 20-0 third quarter lead by allowing two touchdowns in the fourth quarter as they wilted against Morton’s power ground game in the oppressive 88-degree heat and humidity.
Morton (0-1), which had a decided size advantage on both sides of the ball, had taken the lead on a one-yard touchdown run and two-point conversion run by 240-pound running back Quentin Dillion (10 carries, 55 yards) with just 1:29 left in the game.
But after the ensuing kickoff, RBHS quarterback T.J. Sloan (14-of-26 passing for 129 yards and 1 touchdown), aided by a 15-yard roughing the passer call on Morton, drove the Bulldogs into field goal range.
On the drive Sloan connected with Marques Turner for a 13-yard completion and hit Brady Vaia (6 catches, 93 yards, 1 TD) for a 12-yard completion to put the Bulldogs in field goal range at the Morton 29 yard line. But after a swing pass to Ryan Novak lost four yards, Curtin called upon Novak with just 5.9 seconds left on the clock.
“This is my fourth year up here [on varsity]; I did not want to let the boys down,” Novak said. “I wanted to do it for everyone else. I had that edge. I just knew I was going to hit it.”
Novak also caught seven passes for 40 yards and caught the first pass of the final drive for a three-yard gain.
RBHS had built a 13-0 halftime lead with two touchdowns in the second quarter. First Sloan hit Vaia for what looked to be about a 10-yard completion before Vaia broke a tackle and bounded into the end zone for a 23-yard touchdown with 6:38 left in the second quarter. Then Turner scooped up a Morton fumble and raced 16 yards to score, giving the Bulldogs a 13-0 lead.
After a short punt and a good punt return by Vaia put the Bulldogs on the Morton 23 yard line after Morton’s first possession of the third quarter, Curtin, in a move that was decided before the game began, turned to sophomore quarterback Diego Gutierrez.
Gutierrez completed just one of four passes for 10 yards but showed his speed and athleticism by scrambling for 10 yards down to the Morton 3-yard line. But Gutierrez injured his left foot on the play and went out of the game and did not return.
“Diego made some really impressive plays,” Curtin said. “He has an ability to extend plays with his legs, he’s got a pretty good pocket presence, keeps his eyes downfield.”
Ryan Novak bulled in from the one yard line with 8:31 remaining in the third quarter to give the Bulldogs a 20-0 lead before the RBHS offense stalled and Morton started its comeback.
The Bulldogs played without one of the best players, wide receiver Owen Murphy, who was in Florida trying out for the 18-under Team USA baseball team.
The heat and humidity took its toll on both teams and many players began suffering from cramps.
A large crowd packed the stadium for the first fall football game before an unrestricted crowd in nearly two years.
“It’s just so many people that you haven’t seen in a while, hanging out with a bunch of your classmates, a good time,” said RBHS junior Sam Egan.
Egan has played some recreational sports with Matt Novak and knew that he was a good athlete. Still, he was not optimistic when Novak lined up for the 49-yard attempt, especially after the first shank.
“I didn’t know he had that kick in him,” Egan said.