BLUFFTON — Manchester safety Max Jones knew Bluffton had to throw in the closing minutes.
So once Jones saw the ball leave Bluffton quarterback Tyler Wright’s hand, he broke to the ball like a missile.
Jones picked off Wright at the Manchester 49 and returned it 51 yards for a TD to clinch Manchester’s 24-14 victory Saturday at Salzman Stadium.
Manchester was clinging to a 17-14 lead with 1:38 to go when Wright dropped back from his own 35-yard line. His pass went right down the heart of the field before Jones stepped in front of the Bluffton receiver for the interception. Jones found the end zone with 1:38 to play. That capped off the scoring at 24-14.
“It’s surreal right now because it’s our first win,” Jones said. “It gets me on edge because it’s a big game for us and we knew they had to pass. I had to read my cues, but in practice I had been dropping them.”
Bluffton stands 3-2 and 2-1 in the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference. Manchester is 1-4, 1-2 in the HCAC.
Manchester jumped out to an early 14-0 first-quarter lead thanks in part to the running of quarterback Nick Williams, who had 71 yards rushing at the half. Williams’ 5-yard TD run gave Manchester a 14-0 lead with 4:32 left in the first quarter.
“We got behind 14-0 and didn’t come out ready to go on defense and any time you’re battling from behind early on it’s going to be a tough road,” Bluffton coach Tyson Veidt said.
Bluffton’s Wright hit Donovan Brown for a 30-yard TD to cap a seven-play, 68-yard drive. Brown caught the ball at the 20 and broke two tackles on his way to the end zone. That made it 14-7.
Bluffton came up with a big play on third-and-23 with 5:54 to go before the half. Wright fired deep down the right sideline to Shawn Frost, who took the ball in stride and ran away from the Manchester secondary for a 72-yard TD.
That tied the game at 14.
Manchester took the lead to stay 17-14 on a 34-yard field goal by Kyle Evans with 24 seconds left before the half.
On Bluffton’s first drive of the second half the Beavers took the ball from their own 34 all the way to the Manchester 1. Then, on fourth-and-goal from the 1, Airic Steagall plowed straight ahead and stretched the ball near the goal line, but it was ruled his knee touched just inside the 1. The ball went over to the Spartans.
“That was a big momentum shift,” Veidt said. “We moved the ball well and it was less than a yard. Whether he got in or not, the ref said he didn’t so he didn’t. That was a big momentum change.”
Bluffton’s leading rusher, freshman Calib Alexander, was bottled up trying to dart outside and finished with negative-17 yards on nine carries. But Bluffton sledgehammer, 5-foot-8, 190-pound Steagall had 77 yards on 15 carries.
Wright completed 17 of 23 for 236 yards. He threw two TDs, but had the one key interception. Frost finished with seven receptions for 119 yards and one TD.
Manchester’s Williams completed 14 of 23 for 151 yards with one TD. He ran for 67 yards to lead the ground game.
Defensively, Bluffton middle linebacker Josh Runda (Bath) led the team with 14 tackles, two for loss, and one sack. Ben Kaufman (Ottawa-Glandorf) had 10 tackles.
“Coach made some adjustments (at halftime) on the white board and we were able to play a little bit better, but unfortunately, we couldn’t come out of the gates that way,” Runda said.
Bluffton, which finished 5-5 last year, is shooting for its first winning season since the Beavers went 7-3 in 2000.
“We have five games left and most all of our goals we can still reach,” Veidt said. “It starts here on Monday.”