WILLOW WOOD — When a team comes into a contest having something to prove to itself, it’s always an excellent scene when said team shows signs of what it can do when it puts a complete half together.
On Friday evening, the East Tartans started an SOC I conference affair against Symmes Valley red-hot as East used excellent play from Brady Douthat to sprint out to a 14-0 advantage after a quarter of play.
But after seeing Symmes Valley take control of the second quarter en route to a 10 minute, 20 second scoring drive that cut the Tartans’ lead to a 14-7 margin heading to the halftime break, James Gifford and his coaching staff challenged each player as far as the task of finishing was concerned.
And in the second half of play, it was clear to all in attendance that East did exactly that.
On the first play of the second half, the Tartans pounced on a fumble, scored just three plays later on a 20-yard run by Kyle Flannery, and never looked back from that point on forward as Braiden Haney scored on a 32-yard fumble recovery while Douthat followed with an 11-yard rushing touchdown to put the ball in motion as East defeated Symmes Valley in running clock fashion, 38-7, in an impressive showing on the road at Symmes Valley High School in Willow Wood on Friday evening.
For James Gifford, the performance displayed by his unit over the last 24 minutes was everything that he could’ve hoped for.
“The second half performance was 100 percent, full-credit, the kids,” Gifford said. “It was as well as I’ve seen the line block all year long, and Symmes Valley’s a physical team. For us to control the line of scrimmage in the second half like we did was very pleasing. The guys came out and played football, and hopefully, that rolls on to Notre Dame. Then, if we can get Notre Dame, hopefully that’ll carry on over to the playoffs.”
In the first quarter, however, East proved to be plenty effective behind its do-it-all quarterback. With East facing a third-and-eight, Douthat found room, sprinted down the left sideline, and used his clever footwork to amass 19 yards on the critical scramble.
Then, after finding Haney for a nine-yard reception two plays later, Douthat found Devon Stevens out in the flat on a third-and-one, and Stevens, after breaking a tackle at the Symmes Valley 21, sprinted untouched for a 28-yard touchdown reception that capped off a six-play, 65-yard drive and put the Tartans up by a 6-0 margin with 9:48 to play in the opening quarter.
“We came out hot,” Gifford said. “We came out exactly the way that we wanted to come out.”
However, Douthat wasn’t done working his magic.
After the East defense forced a quick three-and-out, a five-yard punt by Symmes Valley allowed Ethan Gifford to quickly put the Tartans in business again with his drive-opening 11-yard burst up the middle of the field. Douthat then recovered from a nine-yard sack, and not only recovered all nine of those yards on a scramble, but found a way to convert a critical fourth-and-10 with a perfect pass in between the seams to JD Hatcher, who ran untouched for a 39-yard touchdown reception to cap off a five-play, 53-yard drive that put East up by a 14-0 tally with 5:19 to play in the opening quarter.
The 39-yard touchdown pass to Hatcher, which officially gave Douthat East’s all-time record for passing touchdowns in a season with 22, was just one of the many accomplishments that the 5-10, 185-pounder obtained on Friday evening. In all, Douthat accumulated 198 total yards of offense while completing five of his seven passes for 113 yards and obtaining 85 additional yards on 10 carries for the contest.
“Brady’s a dual-threat quarterback,” Gifford said. “He can run the ball, and can definitely throw the football. The throw that he had to JD Hatcher was the best throw that he’s made all year. It was on a line.”
However, Symmes Valley certainly proved to be stout in their own right. After losing a total of three yards on their first five plays from scrimmage, the Vikings — behind a 30-yard pass from Keifer Wilson to Austin Waugh and an 11-yard run by Derik Brace — moved the football right down the Tartans’ throat on a 16-play, 75-yard drive that took up nearly 10 and a half minutes off of the first half clock.
Layken Gothard capped off the drive with not only one fourth-down conversion run, but two, as the senior followed up a seven-yard run on fourth-and-two with a two-yard touchdown run on fourth-and-goal from the East 2 to close the Tartans’ lead to a 14-7 margin at the halftime break.
“Symmes Valley took control,” Gifford said. “To be honest with you, I was very disappointed in us the entire second quarter. Credit to Symmes Valley. Daggone, Rusty (Webb) is a heck of a coach. Their players play hard. This program out here (in Willow Wood) is great. It really is.”
However, regardless of Symmes Valley’s competitiveness, Gifford and his staff knew that something had to give if East was going to emerge from Willow Wood with the victory and keep their playoff hopes alive and well. So the entire coaching staff challenged the players to go out and take the bull by the horns in the second half.
“At halftime, we just went in there and challenged the guys,” Gifford said. “We told them, ‘Look. They aren’t doing anything we haven’t taught you. We’ve prepared. You guys know what’s going on, and the second half’s on you.”
And from the opening kickoff of the second half, that’s exactly what East did.
After nearly recovering a bobbled onside kick from Symmes Valley at the Vikings’ 40, the Tartans wasted no time making a short field a reality as a fumbled football by Gothard allowed Ethan Gifford to pounce on the pigskin at the East 43. Douthat’s 23-yard scramble two plays into the drive then set up the shifty Flannery, who juked and jived his way into the end zone from 20 yards out. Douthat then added the two-point conversion run to put East up by a 22-7 margin with 10:37 to play in the third quarter of action.
East, however, was just getting warmed up.
After trading possessions, Symmes Valley looked to be in business again as a personal foul via a facemask allowed the Vikings to gather a first own inside its own 35-yard line.
However, Haney changed that fact in a hurry as the sophomore defensive end snatched a Wilson pitch out of the air and took it uncontested from 32 yards out to completely change the complexion of the affair. Douthat then added another two-point conversion run to push the margin to an impressive 30-7 margin with 6:06 still to play in the third quarter of action.
The sophomore, who proved to be East’s field general all evening long from a defensive standpoint, put together another gargantuan performance on Friday evening by obtaining 2.5 sacks and the 32-yard touchdown in a must-win situation.
“(Haney’s fumble return) was a big play,” Gifford said. “I know that we scored the drive before that, but that was the play that turned the whole momentum of the game. I believe that it made (Symmes Valley) feel like the ballgame was out of reach from that point. With the way that he plays on Friday nights, it’s hard to believe that Braiden is a sophomore.”
After another quick three-and-out from the Vikings on the enusing drive, East wasted no time taking control behind the strong play shown from its offensive line. In fact, the Tartans’ last scoring drive was arguably its best, as East overcame a false start penalty and a holding call to give Douthat his school record setting 27th touchdown of the season, which the senior accumulated by outracing all Symmes Valley comers to the left pylon. The 11-yard touchdown run not only capped off the seven-play, 67-yard drive, but the scoring as well.
“It was personal, not against Symmes Valley, but ourselves,” Gifford said of his team’s second-half performance. “We needed to prove something to ourselves, because I’ll be honest, I’m not a type of person that just wants to go to the playoffs. I want to go to the playoffs and win. It was kind of personal with the way that we played in the second half.”
With the victory, East not only improved to a sterling 7-2 overall mark and grabbed firm control of second place in the SOC I standings, but moved inside the playoff cutline as the Tartans now sit sixth in the Division VII, Region 27 playoff rankings according to Joe Eitel with 10.3232 points to its credit. A simple victory over Notre Dame in Week 10 will likely seal the deal — but Gifford knows that the Titans won’t just let East walk away with the victory.
“Of course now, on film, you’ve seen about everybody because of people you’ve played,” Gifford said. “(Ben) Mader’s a heck of a ballplayer, and Bob Ashley, to me, does an awesome job. I don’t think anybody in our conference can take 13, 14, 15 guys and get the effort that he gets out of his players. It’s really amazing to see every single year. We definitely won’t overlook them. We’re going to have to play and see what happens.”
Reach Kevin Colley at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1930 OR on Twitter @KColleyPDT