The referee's finger pointed straight down, to a spot just inches short of the goal line. Garrett Woodall clutched the ball with his top half stretched into the end zone, but when he turned his head and saw the spot, he slumped back to the turf.
West Forsyth's last shot at scoring against Milton had failed. The Wolverines called a bootleg throwback play, the classic goal line go-to, but quarterback Zach Burns' throw was a bit short and stretched Woodall away from the end zone.
The Wolverines turned the ball over on downs. Milton took it at the goal line, got the first down it needed and then kneed the remaining seconds away to beat West 17-13 in the Region 5-7A opener and give Eagles head coach Adam Clack a win in his return to West, where he was head coach the previous three years.
"I just told the guys (that) maybe I did a bad job of pushing the distraction away from you of what this game was," Wolverines head coach Shawn Cahill said. "We just lost a little bit of focus for a little while tonight, and you can't do that against a good team."
The Eagles (5-1, 1-0 Region 5-7A), who had gone to Roswell and smashed the Hornets 40-7 the previous week, had caused Cahill to say on Tuesday that West (4-2, 0-1) needed a "perfect" performance to get a win.
The Wolverines didn't get that, and they didn't necessarily need it: Milton was far from flawless, with multiple drive-extending penalties and a pedestrian performance up front. But West erred too much to fully take advantage of the Eagles' flaws.
"Even when we get a lot of penalties, we don't jump offsides or line up in the neutral zone," Cahill said. "That's just something we haven't done all year. We've been disciplined enough to not do that, and I think we did it twice tonight. It was uncharacteristic."
After the Wolverines' first touchdown, which came on Ben Bresnahan's one-yard touchdown run with 5:39 left in the second quarter, Bryce Jones' extra point attempt was blocked, and that would loom large later in the game.
West opted for an offensive attack heavy on deception, with plenty of option looks, unconventional sets and trick plays mixed in. That strategy largely worked well for the Wolverines: Bresnahan's run came when he took a direct snap in a heavy set, and Burns' quickness and improvisational skills shined, as he rushed for 131 yards on 14 carries.
"(Milton's) got some pretty good athletes there, and we didn't want to get into a shootout with them where we were going athlete for athlete," Cahill said. "We felt like our game is (to) come downhill, hit you in the mouth. When we put two backs in the backfield and decided to run some option stuff, pitching it, that was something that we saw and decided during the game (to) run that."
But the Wolverines' execution of that strategy was too erratic. Multiple trick plays stalled out because players false started or were lined up incorrectly, and West, which had to put together long drives rather than relying on large gains, was hurt by the accumulated penalties.
"That just sometimes happens when you're running new plays for the first time in a real live setting," Burns said. "Guys get excited about the idea that that play could score a touchdown."
Milton scored three times, on a 65-yard drive in the first quarter, a 75-yard drive -- extended by a fourth-down conversion on a hook-and-ladder play -- later in the second quarter and with a field goal with 6:48 to go in the game.
West ran the ball on the first eight plays of the ensuing drive and eventually got down to fourth and goal at the three-yard line. The 17-13 margin gave the Wolverines no choice but to try for a touchdown, and when they called a timeout before the fourth-down play, it was to decide what play to run.
The Wolverines came up short, literally by inches. The much-hyped return of Clack, who had left West the previous spring, went in the Eagles' favor. That wasn't really what made the loss hurt for the Wolverines, though.
"Internally, we knew it wasn't a big deal to us, who we were playing," Burns said. "When the game started, I think it felt the same way, and I feel the same way now. It's just upsetting because we came half an inch from a big region win."