WEST PORTSMOUTH — Inspiring comebacks are always a wonder to behold for an average football fan.
However, the comeback that the West Senators’ football program put together on Friday may very well be one of the best ever witnessed at The Rock.
Over the vast majority of the first half of play, the Portsmouth Trojans had controlled the highly esteemed rivalry affair between the two ballclubs.
Need proof? Isaac Kelly’s two touchdowns and 176 yards of total offense in the first half, a stingy defense that held West to just 22 yards of total offense over the first 20:43, including a minus 1-yard output in the first quarter of action, and a stagnant offensive attack that garnered just two first downs over that same period of time would pretty well indicate that fact throughout the majority of the first half.
But after a key 10-play drive resulted in a 32-yard field goal by Drew Cassidy as time expired to end the first half, West found a much-needed boost of energy — and set sail from that point on.
After controlling the vast majority of the third quarter clock, West used a 13-play, 99-yard drive from its own one-yard line to wear down a strong Portsmouth defense in a drive that eventually resulted in a four-yard touchdown run by Dylan Bradford and spanned 7:05 between the third and fourth quarters of play.
Just two plays into Portsmouth’s following drive, Josh Berry followed by taking a scintillating 30-yard interception return back for a score to give West the lead, and the Senators rolled on by scoring 32 unanswered points — including 29 in the fourth quarter of play — to take home a wild 32-14 victory over Portsmouth in a marquee matchup between two strong high school football programs.
The outcome was most certainly enough to put a pretty wide grin on Ben Johnson’s face.
“I am so proud of the guys for the outstanding resiliency that they showed tonight,” Johnson said. “The guys just continued to bounce back. They battled hard the whole game. We had a blown coverage assignment in the first half and a turnover that give Portsmouth a short field, but they were battling the whole time and keeping a short memory. It was amazing to come out, have that turnover in the opening drive of the second half, and still have the guts to come back and make that goal line stand. Then, to go on a 99-yard drive after that, it’s exactly what you want to see out of a football team. I couldn’t be more proud of these guys.”
On the other side of the coin, however, the mood was, understandably, a very different one for Aaron Duncan and the Trojans.
“We believed that we played a pretty good first half of football,” Duncan said. “We controlled the ball. Defensively, we were pretty solid. Offensively, we still have some penalties that we need to get cleaned up, and we need to finish drives. We got down inside the redzone on several occasions, and the message for the last three weeks now has been about getting out of our our way. When things aren’t going well, it’s usually because of ourselves. That’s taking nothing away from West; that’s a good ballclub right there. West continued to feed off their own ability to control and move the ball while getting first downs in the second half, and by the end of the game, they were able to wear us out a little bit. Hat’s off to Ben Johnson, his staff, and the West football program for a game well played.”
Initially, however, it looked like the Portsmouth offense was going to have no trouble in putting up serious numbers once again.
After stalling out on a six-play drive to begin the affair, the Trojans got the football back after a West three-and-out, and Kelly, on the third play of the second drive, found a wide-open Deante Parker for a 70-yard touchdown after Parker outraced the defense down the near sideline to put Portsmouth ahead by a 7-0 tally with 7:34 to play in the first quarter.
Then, after an interception by Portsmouth’s Daniel Parker and two straight three-and-outs from both units, Portsmouth put together arguably its best drive of the affair by going on a 12-play, 60-yard drive that took off 5:34 from the first quarter clock, with the Trojans overcoming two illegal procedure penalties and a holding call behind the back of Kelly, who obtained all 60 yards on the Portsmouth drive en route to diving for the end zone and obtaining the Trojans’ second score on a strong second effort.
Overall, Kelly proved to be a one-man wrecking crew all night for Portsmouth en route to collecting 113 yards on 27 carries while amassing 106 passing yards.
“West did a good job trying to keep Isaac bottled up running the football,” Kelly said. “I told him, ‘With being down Talyn (Parker), I trust you as far as your ability to use your legs and your ability to throw when you have to. Isaac made things happen with his arm and his legs. We did have some turnovers, and we’ve got to cut those out if we’re going to be good teams like West.”
“(Isaac Kelly) was a man,” Johnson said. “He was hard to stop.”
While Portsmouth proved to be off and running from an offensive standpoint, Jordan’s interception, along with a fumble lost in Portsmouth territory, kept the West offense from getting on track.
But with 3:17 remaining in the first half of play, the Senators went to work.
After starting from their own two-yard line, West mixed and matched the running abilities of Bradford, Gabe Skaggs, and Garrett Hurd en route to keeping the Portsmouth defense off-balance. Two Bradford competitions to Isaiah Norman and Josh Berry, along with a costly personal foul penalty from the Trojans, allowed West to move right into field goal range with just one second left on the first half clock.
Still, the task to even put a field goal up on the board looked daunting. Even with a standout kicker like Drew Cassidy at the ready, the senior was going to have to hit a 32-yard field goal — into a sideways rain and a howling wind.
But if those conditions were present, Cassidy certainly didn’t seemed phased by the challenge, as the senior comfortably made the point after with at least eight yards to spare to put West within 11, 14-3, at halftime despite being outgained by a 205-90 count by a powerful Portsmouth unit. West’s second score inside of one minute to play in as many weeks would prove to be huge, once again.
“In a game like this, when it’s sloppy, special teams is huge,” Johnson said. “Drew making that kick into the wind was huge. We put that drive together close to the half, and even though it was just a field goal, that really gave us some momentum going into the halftime break. Then, when we got turned around to where our backs were behind the wind, that just adds to Drew’s leg, and that’s big because it forces a team to go 80 yards out each time out. That’s always going to lead to a lot of success.”
“It changed the dynamics of the game a little bit,” Duncan said. “It changed the momentum a little bit. I told the guys that when we kick off to them, we need to bow our backs a little bit, stand our ground, and get the ball back to our offense. We did that.
And after another West turnover gave Portsmouth the ball back inside Senators’ territory once again, Portsmouth was able to drive deep into the West redzone on an eight-play drive. Yet again, however, a holding penalty proved to be costly, and despite allowing the Trojans to drive all the way down to the one-yard line, the Senators were able to snuff out an Isaac Kelly run on a 4th-and-3 to force Portsmouth to turn the ball over on downs. Despite outgaining West by a margin of 246-90 in total yards at this point in the contest, the Trojans still led by only the aforementioned 14-3 margin.
“Unfortunately, we had a costly penalty on offense that set us back 15 yards in field position inside the redzone,” Duncan said. “We got to the 1-yard line, but close only counts in horseshoes. We’ve improved in a lot of areas, but right now, (limiting penalties) is definitely an area that we’re going to have to improve in if we want to have the type of season that we want,” Duncan said. “We can’t have costly penalties at inopportune times and expect to win football games against good teams. That happened tonight.”
What followed was one of the more gutsy drives one can hope to see from a high school football team.
Despite being pinned from its own 1, West used the quarterback sneak — a play that surprisingly garnered well over five yards per carry each time the Senators ran the play — to get some breathing room, and then used the powerful legs of Hurd to do much of the rest of the damage. The 5-7 running back put together arguably the best game of his high school football career on Friday evening by rushing for 160 yards on 22 carries behind an offensive line that found a way to move Portsmouth off of the football despite being vastly undersized.
“Portsmouth’s a great football team,” Johnson said. “Our guys just played hard. My assistant coaches saw a few things at halftime that we could exploit as far as running the ball was concerned, and our guys just executed. To execute time and time again like the guys did was amazing.”
After Hurd ran for 70 of his 160 yards on the drive, Josh Berry added 15 additional yards on just three totes before Hurd collected 30 yards to get the Senators down to the Portsmouth 4. Bradford then finished the drive the same way he started it — by following behind the gritty offensive line — en route to capping the 99-yard drive with a four-yard touchdown. Hurd’s ensuing two-point conversion run then cut a once-14-point Trojan lead down to 14-11 with 10:40 to play in the game.
Berry, however, wasn’t satisfied with a progressive shift in momentum. Two plays later, the senior — who also collected 21 rushing yards on four carries and garnered a crucial sack on defense — stepped in front of a Kelly throw and picked the pass off inside Portsmouth territory. Then, after sprinting to find room on the far side of the field, Berry, instead of simply running out of bounds, looked and found a crease inside the 20, hit it, and sprinted the rest of the distance for the go-ahead touchdown to put the Senators up 18-14.
“That was a great individual play by Josh,” Johnson said. “We had great pass pressure on that play, we had great coverage, and from there, it was an outstanding individual effort after Josh made the interception to take the ball into the endzone. That was the turning point.”
From there, it was all West. On two separate occasions, Portsmouth had a chance to make things interesting, but a false start and a Berry sack on the Trojans’ first attempt and an interception by West’s Cody Staggs on Portsmouth’s second attempt allowed the Senators to maintain control. West followed the efforts of the defensive unit up by going on a four-play, 30-yard drive and a six-play, 55-yard drive, with Bradford — who ran for 53 yards and three scores on 12 carries — punching reservations for six both teams to seal Portsmouth’s fate.
“Hat’s off to West,” Duncan said. “They made some good adjustments in the second half, and were able to come out and get the momentum going. It looked like things weren’t in their favor, but they didn’t quit, and that was the biggest thing for them. What was disheartening to me was the fact when West grinded it out and got the lead, we lost a little bit of our fight. That’s the thing that I’m most upset about right now. That’s something that we’ve got to go back and teach the kids.”
“We got that first score early in the quarter, and it was all about field position from that point,” Johnson said. “We were able to obtain touchbacks on our kickoffs (Drew Cassidy), which was huge, and Portsmouth was into the wind at that point. We were able to keep the ball on that end of the field.”
With the victory, West has now overcome early deficits two weeks in a row to grab victories over Ohio Valley Conference (OVC) opponents. They’ll look for their third victory in as many weeks against an OVC opponent when the Senators make the trip up U.S. 52 to Coal Grove next Friday.
“I’m very pleased with where we’re at right now,” Johnson said. “Our guys showed a lot. A lot of guys grew up tonight, and hopefully, that gives us a lot of confidence moving forward.”
As for Portsmouth, the Trojans, who now sit at 1-1 on the year, will make the difficult road trip to Galion to play a unit that is 2-0 and has won both of its contests by at least 23 points.
“It’s a long season,” Duncan said. “One loss isn’t going to make or break any season. 2-0 is better than 1-1, but regardless, we’ve still got Week 3 coming up and a tough opponent in Galion awaiting us on the road. It’s a long trip against a team that I really don’t know a whole lot about. We’ll get the film, lick our wounds, regroup, and get back to work.”
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