AUDUBON – In the end, the deciding play in Friday’s Iowa eight-man playoff quarterfinal game putting CAM against hosting Audubon was a very costly offsides penalty, when the Cougars had Audubon on fourth-and-1 at their 30 with 2:44 left.

Trailing 40-32 and a chance still there for the ninth-ranked Cougars to upend their hosts, a big stop on that play might have given the Cougars a chance to tie the game and maybe force overtime.

Despite that clinching play, however, there were several plays that pointed toward a well-executed gameplan by the Wheelers and made the difference.

A pick-six by one of the team’s top defensive backs.

A touchdown just before halftime.

A busted play that went from disaster to a definitive touchdown.

And holding CAM to making just one of their five two-point conversions.

All difference makers in booking the trip to the UNI-Dome in Cedar Falls and a spot in school history.

Audubon will play their game Thursday, Nov. 14, either at 9 a.m. or noon against a team that had yet to be announced late Friday night. However, early indications were that the Wheelers would get a rematch against Remsen-St. Marys, who won a 26-25 contest earlier this season.

“Our four-minute drill did a really good job closing this out,” Audubon coach Sean Birks said after his team picked up win No. 11 on the year. “They trusted their defense to get the ball back, but our offense did it’s job, churned put a few first downs ran the play clock down before each play, and it’s always awesome to finally send out the victory formation without having to give the ball back in that tight of a situation.”

HOW IT HAPPENED

It took the Cougars delivering the first two blows – halfback Lane Spieker taking the wildcat snap 21 yards around the right side and senior quarterback Nate Hensley busting up the middle for 1 yard – for the Wheelers to get righted.

And it took just a minute to regain order.

Kaiden Smith busted away for a 19-yard run around the right side on a third-and-5 play to begin the rally with 4:13 left in the first half. Then, just over a minute later, Ethan Klocke sniffed out Hensley’s long pass on first-and-15 and had himself a 12-yard pick six.

“Kaiden’s big run gave us a spark,” Audubon junior Ethan Klocke said. “Then I was able to come away with that pick, and to us it felt big. We got the lead on that play, it was a huge play for us.”

CAM seized the momentum right back with a 46-yard touchdown reception to Jacob Holste. With 1:39 left before half, the Cougars thought it had the momentum.

As it turned out, that was temporary. After a couple of big gains by Kaiden Smith, it was the other Smith – Gavin – who connected with Klocke for a 34-yard touchdown reception with just 8.3 seconds left to halftime.

The Wheelers never trailed again, and the play that could have been disaster turned into one that helped seal the outcome. Set up at the Cougar 26, the snap from center went high and Skyler Schultes had to race back to get it about 15 yards to grab it.

With a host of Cougars in hot pursuit, the cool-as-a-cucumber senior quarterback dodged several white and blue uniforms and found Kaiden Smith on a crazy pass, and Smith did the rest, taking it what was on paper 26 yards to the end zone to establish a 26-18 lead at the 9:44 mark of the third.

“We knew we need to keep playing hard and taking it to them,” Smith said. “We knew they weren’t going to give up, but we kept getting timely first downs, and we kept finding answers when we needed them.”

Smith extended the lead to two scores with a 40-yard wildcat run on the next series, but CAM began to rally, as Hensley hit Spieker for a 60-yard touchdown run to make it 34-24.

Then Smith answered again, with a 21-yard touchdown to make it 40-24 and seemingly seal the outcome with 1:42 left in the third.

A Spieker-to-Jacob Holste touchdown from 10 yards out on a trick play made it an eight-point game and put the Cougars in contention.

CAM held Audubon on the next series and had a chance, but the Wheeler defense held firm, forcing Hensley to throw the ball away on fourth down at midfield. The Cougars allowed nine yards on the ensuing series, but then came the costly offsides penalty that eventually allowed the Wheelers to run out the clock.

“We still made a few too many mistakes at crucial times,” CAM coach Joe Wollum said. “We let them take back the momentum heading into the half, but I’m very proud of our kids and with what we’ve done this year. Wish we could could’ve sent our senior out on a better note, but great season.”

Gavin Smith was 2-of-5 passing for 51 yards for the Wheelers, including the 34-yard touchdown to Ethan Klocke just before the half. Schultes completed all five of his passes for 20 yards, while Kaiden Smith had 246 total yards, including 203 yards on 26 carries and three touchdowns.

“A lot of guys made big plays for us,” Birks said. “We leaned on Kaiden a lot. He’s a physical kid, he’s a gamer, he doesn’t complain, and he wants the ball in his hands and make plays for us and he did make plays.”

“Ethan did the same thing defensively with two huge turnovers, offensively as a blocker, he’s such a versatile player and is very intelligent. Kaiden and Ethan were both really big for us here, but a lot of other guys made big plays in this game as well.”

Klocke had two turnovers, including the pick-six and a fumble recovery.

For CAM, who leaves the post-season at 8-3, Hensley was 11-for-20 for 203 yards and two touchdowns. Spieker had 214 total yards and two touchdowns, including 100 of them rushing on 19 attempts. Jacob Holste added 91 yards on six receptions and a pair of scores. Joe Kaufmann had 12 solo tackles on the night to lead the Cougar defense.