Wheelersburg senior Creed Warren (25) tries to break the tackle attempts of Ironton’s Aris Pittman (0) and Braden Schreck (12) during Friday night’s non-league season-opening football game at Ironton’s Tanks Memorial Stadium.
Courtesy of Terry Stevenson of www.burgsports.com
IRONTON — Through the forest of some sloppy play, and mistakes on both sides at times, it was once again a case against Ironton’s Fighting Tigers that a single play here and there indeed made Wheelersburg’s difference.
Whether it was three inopportune interceptions, a penalty pushing the Pirates back behind the sticks, or an early missed alignment on a jet sweep, those mistakes all added up to another Ironton triumph over Wheelersburg.
The host Fighting Tigers took a 14-0 lead only 11 minutes in, and halted Wheelersburg’s rally with a mid third-quarter David Fields field goal —as Ironton outlasted the Pirates 17-14 on Friday night, in front an electric and always overflow crowd inside historic Tanks Memorial Stadium.
For the series between the two tradition-rich rivals, that’s four consecutive regular-season victories for Ironton — which extended the all-time series standing to 21 Fighting Tiger wins, and 14 for the Pirates.
It was almost a Pirate comeback complete, though, as Wheelersburg rallied with two touchdowns and two Connor Estep extra-point kicks —in a matter of seven second-quarter minutes, along with another 50 seconds.
Trailing 17-14, the Pirates had new life in the final minute and 14 tics —having sacked Ironton quarterback Bailey Thacker at the 33-yard line on 4th-down-and-23, as the Fighting Tigers took a potential game-clinching drive all the way down to the 10.
But the Pirates managed just one first down on their final series, and after getting to their own 45-yard line, were penalized 15 yards for an ineligible man downfield.
Facing 4th-down-and-16 at the 39, Pirate sophomore signal-caller Braylon Rucker —the latest such Pirate to make his first career start at Ironton of all places —was pressured, sacked and fumbled the football, resulting in a turnover on downs.
“It was a good hard-fought football game that came down to the last play,” said sixth-year Ironton head coach Trevon Pendleton. “Those are always something to be a part of.”
Last season’s contest was also a defensive slugfest at Ed Miller Stadium in Wheelersburg, as those Fighting Tigers tallied a long touchdown run in the final two minutes —escaping with a 12-3 win.
While defense ruled the roost, and style points were hard to come by, the overall young and inexperienced Pirates — underdogs again against Ironton — put forth an excellent effort.
Rather, it was execution issues, and making mistakes, that doomed Wheelersburg on the scoreboard this time.
“None of us like the outcome, but there was plenty of people that didn’t expect what they saw from us tonight. I thought our guys fought hard. Did we make mistakes? Sure. We have not hid the fact one bit that we are a young football team. We recognize that we’ve got a lot of experience things that we have to be exposed to at different times. We gained a lot of that tonight,” said 16-year Wheelersburg head coach Rob Woodward. “We took a couple of shots on the chin real quick, but we stuck our chin right back out there and we were ready to go again. We kept fighting from 14 (points) down at the end of the first quarter to 14-14 at halftime. We just couldn’t quite muster enough offense, but I still like what I saw from this football team. We still have a lot of tough stout games in the weeks to come, and I am excited to go to battle with these guys.”
Those battles begin with Rucker, who completed 11-of-17 passes for 67 yards —including an 11-yard touchdown toss to Devon Lattimore, with eight-and-a-half minutes remaining in the second quarter to cut the deficit to 14-7 with Estep’s extra point.
But before the final series, the Pirates punted three second-half times, including a three-and-out with only five minutes remaining.
Rucker also threw his second interception only three minutes earlier, as Shaun Terry intercepted Landon Hutchinson’s halfback pass in the end zone late in the second stanza.
The Pirates punted five times, and committed seven penalties for 60 yards.
But Rucker’s first interception in the opening quarter, and the standout Terry taking a jet sweep to the house, had the momentum at a key juncture immediately flip in Ironton’s favor.
With the aid of a pair of Ironton 15-yard personal-foul penalties on two Wheelersburg third-and-longs, the Pirates pushed forward to inside the red zone on the game’s opening possession.
But, on a third 3rd-down-and-13 for the series, Rucker rolled right —and Braden Schreck stepped in front of the pass to pick it off near the front corner pylon.
Schreck was ruled out at the 1-yard line, but no matter, not when Terry took the handoff four plays later on a jet sweep —and got outside and off to the races for an 85-yard touchdown sprint.
The Fighting Tigers needed only a minute and 50 seconds to swing the game a full 14 points —as Fields’ first extra point of his Ironton career made it 7-0 at the 4:24 mark of the first.
Woodward discussed the sequence of early events.
“It was a ball Braylon threw up there, and they (Fighting Tigers) were able to go and get it. Those are things we have to learn from. Then the jet sweep for touchdown, he (Terry) is fast and got outside of us, and we were out of alignment and position,” he said. “Hats off to them for running a formation we hadn’t seen, and did a good job of executing it.”
For the Fighting Tigers, they needed the light switch turned on too —as they didn’t score a touchdown for the final 37 minutes, after Zayne Williams went 29 yards to cap a three-play, 38-yard, minute and 20-second drive to make it 14-0 with exactly a minute left in the opening period.
“We talk a lot about striking quick and sudden change in opportunities. We were able to capitalize right there off that interception (in the first quarter). If we turn the ball over, we have to extinguish the fire as soon as possible. If we create a turnover or get a big-chunk play or make an explosive play, we have to create momentum for ourselves,” said Pendleton. “We preach those things, stress those things in practice all week, and saw some of those come to fruition tonight when we needed them.”
The Fighting Tigers, the defending Division V state runner-up and for the third time in the past four years, didn’t do themselves many favors throughout —in the form of 14 penalties for 108 yards, and two lost fumbles.
Thacker completed 3-of-9 passes for 29 yards, as Ironton rushed for 279 on 44 attempts —and outgained Wheelersburg by an even 100 (308-208).
Thacker paced the Fighting Tigers for 61 yards on 19 carries, as four other rushers carried at least four for 36.
One of those was senior and Notre Dame transfer Gavin Hart, who had all 10 of his carries in the second half for 37 yards.
“We weren’t able to sustain a lot of offensive drives, and a lot of it was due to getting behind the chains. You get behind the chains against a very good disciplined defense, you’re going to struggle. We were able to force some negative plays on them, got them behind the chains and we were able to capitalize on those,” said Pendleton. “But too many unforced errors, too many penalties. Dead-ball personal fouls, things we HAVE to clean up.”
The Pirates’ recovery of an Ironton fumble only a minute and 44 seconds into the second quarter put them at the Fighting Tiger 32, as Rucker connected with the Portsmouth transfer Lattimore for a 26-yard gain to inside the 10.
Wheelersburg senior Devon Lattimore (9) races up the Pirate sideline as Ironton’s Aiden Layne (52) looks on during Friday night’s non-league season-opening football game at Ironton’s Tanks Memorial Stadium.
Courtesy of Terry Stevenson of www.burgsports.com
Two plays later, Rucker found Lattimore again for the 11-yard score —capping the five-play drive in only a minute and 50 seconds.
A second five-play drive, this one sandwiched around a pair of Ironton punts and Terry’s end-zone interception of Hutchinson, spanned two minutes and 43 yards and was aided by another Ironton personal foul —and ended with Hutchinson taking the direct snap and diving in with 36 seconds left before halftime.
Estep added the extra point, and suddenly it was 14-14.
But the Fighting Tigers shut Wheelersburg out in the second half, and tallied the only points of the final 24 minutes and 36 seconds —by taking the second-half kickoff, driving 13 plays, and ultimately getting Fields’ 31-yard field goal with 6:12 to play in the third.
Thacker rushed seven times on the march, and completed a pair of passes to Schreck totaling 15 yards —his only other completions after a 14-yarder to Terry on the first half’s final play.
As it turned out, that field goal held up —as the Fighting Tigers limited the Pirates to only 21 second-half plays, following 32 in the first half.
“It was a game of give-and-take back and forth from both teams. Big plays and mistakes on both sides. It was just a great high school football game that we don’t like the outcome, but one we’ll learn and grow from and become better next week. There was a lot to be proud of in all three phases across the board,” said Woodward. “A lot we’ll take away, come back and be better for it.”
Lattimore made six receptions for 49 yards, while fellow senior Creed Warren rushed 11 times for 52.
Woodward repeated afterward one of his football coaching beliefs —as the Pirates play simply a brutal schedule, especially in the non-league.
They host Cincinnati McNicholas on Friday night —a Division IV team in which Wheelersburg won an overtime classic last season in Cincinnati, 42-35.
Wheelersburg senior Brayden Maxie (28) finds wide open running room as Ryan Meeker (64) and Nathan Lanning (74) both block during the Pirates’ season-opening football game at Ironton on Friday night.
Courtesy of Terry Stevenson of www.burgsports.com
“Our greatest improvements come from week one to week two, as we work and develop, especially with our youth as we gain that experience,” said the coach.
Meanwhile, Ironton returns home — and returns to non-league action — on Saturday night in the nightcap matchup of the second annual Ironton Gridiron Classic.
The Fighting Tigers tangle with the Division III Jackson Ironmen —in what should be another highly-anticipated and hotly-contested affair.
Kickoff time for that one is set for 8 p.m.
*. *. *
Wheelersburg— 0 14 0 0 — 14
Ironton 14 0 3 0— 17
I— Shaun Terry, 85-yard run (David Fields kick), 4:24, 1st (7-0 I)
I — Zayne Williams, 29-yard run (David Fields kick), 1:00, 1st (14-o)
W — Devon Lattimore, 11-yard pass from Braylon Rucker (Connor Estep kick), 8:26, 2nd (14-7 I)
W — Landon Hutchinson, 1-yard run (Connor Estep kick), :36, 2nd (14-14 tie)
I — David Fields, 31-yard field goal, 6:12, 3rd (17-14 I)
First downs 14 15
Scrimmage plays 53 54
Rushes-yards 35-141 44-279
Passing yards 67 29
Total yards 208 308
Cmp-Att-Int. 11-18-3 3-10-0
Fumbles-lost 1-0 2-2
Penalties-yards 7-60 14-108
Punts-Ave. 5-36.8 4-37
RUSHING —Wheelersburg: Creed Warren 11-52, Braylon Rucker 9-14, Riley Cunningham 7-26, Devon Lattimore 1-20, Brayden Maxie 1-14, Landon Hutchinson 5-16 TD, Kenyon Evans 1-(-1); Ironton: Bailey Thacker 19-61, Gavin Hart 10-37, Zayne Williams 6-47 TD, Shaun Terry 4-98 TD, Braden Schreck 4-36, Team 1-0
PASSING — Wheelersburg: Braylon Rucker 11-17-2-67 TD, Landon Hutchinson 0-1-1-0; Ironton: Bailey Thacker 3-9-0-29, Braden Schreck 0-1-0-0
RECEIVING—Wheelersburg: Devon Lattimore 6-49 TD, Logan Adkins 2-18, Kenyon Evans 2-0, Creed Warren 1-0; Ironton: Braden Schreck 2-15, Shaun Terry 1-14