WEST PORTSMOUTH — For most people, guys like Tim Tebow are admired for their overall passion and drive in sports.
However, during Friday evening’s nonconference football bout between the West Senators and the Fairland Dragons, there was another No. 15 that Tebow would’ve been pleased with if he had the opportunity to take the game in.
While Dylan Bradford may not be as big, or have the national status that Tebow has, the 6-1, 155-pound quarterback showed plenty of moxie and guts in making several big-league throws on the move. His 183 yards and two touchdowns through the air on 12-of-15 passing allowed West to nip Fairland, 20-18, and defend its home turf in the opening game of 2017 for the Senators at The Rock on Friday.
But beyond Johnson’s strong performance, Ben Johnson was pleased with the overall effort of his entire unit, which included several first-time varsity starters in the West lineup.
“During the first game of the year, there’s so many question marks coming into the contest,” Johnson said. “Even though we have a lot of older guys playing, there’s still a lot of them that started their very first varsity game tonight, so to see those guys go out there and make plays is really good to see. We’ve got a lot to work on, and we have to continue to get better, but I’m really proud of the way that the guys battled today.”
From the opening drive of the contest, both offense were tuned in quite well in every aspect. Fairland, who received the opening kickoff, struck first with a 12-play, 58-yard drive as two separate 16-yard passes by Joel Lambiotte helped set up a two-yard touchdown run by Chase Fisher. The 58-yard drive ate up 5:49 of the game clock as the Dragons took a 6-0 lead with 6:11 to play in the opening quarter.
“You’ve got to give Fairland credit,” Johnson said. “What an outstanding game played by Fairland. (Melvin) Cunningham has done an outstanding job with those guys, and I think that they’re going to have a good season this year.”
However, West, in response, showed off similar skills on its following drive.
Behind the gritty attitude of Garrett Hurd, who rushed for 20 yards on the Senators’ opening drive, West was able to move the football inside the redzone as the Senators used the toughness of the 5-7, 155-pounder to pound the football between the tackles. But on the first play of the second quarter, West fumbled the football, giving the ball back to Fairland.
Cody Staggs, however, was determined to atone for the fumble. Just four plays later, Staggs, who fumbled the ball away, redeemed himself with a well-timed leap and pick of a Lambiotte pass —which proved to be a game-changing play for the Senators.
After gaining 12 yards on another set of runs by Hurd, Johnson was able to lull the Fairland defense to sleep, as the Dragons, who were keying on another run play, were caught completely off guard when Bradford found a wide-open Josh Berry down the far sideline. The 5-10, 157-pounder then jolted the remaining 25 yards to paydirt as the 45-yard touchdown strike tied the score at six aside with 6:07 remaining in the first half of play.
“Dylan really made all of the key throws when we needed them,” Johnson said. “We had just enough tonight to come out on top.”
Once again, however, Fairland set the table for an extended drive as the Dragons relied on Lambiotte and Keedrick Cunningham to set the tone in Fairland’s third series. The pair combined to obtain all 66 yards on the Dragons’ third drive of the contest, with Cunningham plowing his way into the end zone on a one-yard dive that put Fairland up by a 12-6 margin thanks to the key 11-play drive.
With just 1:03 left to work with in the first half, the Senators needed to answer in order to create a shift in momentum from the effective skills that continued to be present in the Fairland offense. And true to form, Bradford went to work.
The junior signal-caller wasted no time putting West in a position to score by putting together an efficient drive that saw the 6-1, 155-pounder go 6-for-6 with 67 yards passing through the air. Three of those attempts, including a brilliant 21-yard touchdown pass that was placed in perfect position in the back right corner of the end zone, went to Berry, who did a fantastic job in dragging both of his feet before sailing out of bounds en route to accumulating the game-tying touchdown with 13 seconds to play in the opening half. Drew Cassidy’s extra point capped off a seven-play, 71-yard drive that took just 48 seconds off of the game clock.
In Johnson’s eyes, however, it was just a normal day at the park for Bradford and Berry, with the latter catching six passes for 114 yards and a touchdown.
“Those two guys (Bradford, Josh Berry) are a dynamic duo,” Johnson said. “They’ve been playing together since Pee-Wee, and they’ve got a really great rapport with each other. They just seem to be able to make the plays when you need them to be made.”
That scoring drive proved to be critical to the overall outlook of the affair in the third quarter, which was especially the case when the Senators jumped on a Fairland fumble at the West 49 following a three-and-out. The defensive takeaway resulted in more positive results from an offensive standpoint, as a 24-yard pass from Bradford to Berry and runs of 10 and 15 yards by Hurd — with the scatback leaving several Fairland defenders roughed up in his wake — resulted in another touchdown for the Senators with 8:12 to play in the third stanza.
But as with many of their offensive possessions on the evening, Fairland continued to find a way to keep West on its heels. After running for 24 yards on the drive, Cunningham ran a route over the middle of the field, caught a Lambiotte pass, and outraced three Senators to the corner of the end zone for a 28-yard touchdown on 3rd-and-12 — Fairland’s sixth conversion of a third or fourth down situation in the affair — to cut the lead to 20-18 with 1:41 to go in the third quarter.
However, Hurd wasn’t about to let the Senators go down without a fight.
After West started from its own 37 with 1:33 to play in the same quarter, the Senators were able to drive to the Fairland 32 in a matter of five plays. However, losses of one and 12 yards on the next two plays forced West into a 3rd-and-23 situation at the Fairland 46.
That challenge, however, wasn’t too daunting for Hurd. The junior not only rushed for 12 yards on third down, but turned a five-yard pass into a 16-yard gain on 4th-and-12 to move the ball all the way to the Fairland 18 while eating up precious clock, as the drive ultimately lasted over nine minutes before stalling out at the Fairland 12. Hurd’s 88 yards on 17 carries, however, and his 135 total all-purpose yards proved to be critical in the overall outcome.
“Garrett had two huge plays for us when we were back down to third-and-forever,” Johnson said. “There were two big plays on third and fourth down there that really helped us keep possession of the ball. We struggled to get our defense off of the field, but when Garrett made those plays, it really helped us control the time of possession in the fourth quarter.”
With just over four minutes to drive 88 yards, the Fairland offense was put in a situation that it hadn’t been in all evening long, and, as expected, the West defense jumped all over it. After forcing a three-and-out, the West defense — behind the efforts of Jakeb Guilkey and Gabe Skaggs, among others — stood tall again following a fumble, as Berry picked off a Lambiotte pass with less than 70 seconds remaining in the contest to seal the deal.
“We were able to finally possesses the ball, pick up some first downs, and run out most of the clock,” Johnson said. “Obviously, we gave the ball back to them and gave them one last chance there, but Josh came up with the big play there with the interception to help seal the win.”
The victory, which moves West to 1-0 on the season, also serves as the Senators’ fourth straight victory over Fairland. West has also won 10 out of the last 12 affairs against the Dragons dating back to 2004.
However, there’s no time for the Senators to rest easy. A primo matchup with Portsmouth — who defeated fellow SOC II Conference member Valley, 35-7, on Thursday evening — awaits.
“We’ve just got to continue to work on the fundamentals,” Johnson said. “We’ve got to get better at blocking and tackling, as well as playing assignment football.”
Reach Kevin Colley at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1930 OR on Twitter @ColleyKevin7