WEST PORTSMOUTH — New challenges and situations seem to simply ramp up the energy that the West Senators’ football program brings to the table.
With a jet-quick arm release in Waverly signal-caller Clayton Howell and an equally talented running back in Drew Kritzwiser, along with the trio of Easton Wolf, Phoenix Wolf, and Kayne Jordan out at the receiver positions, Chris Crabtree’s Waverly Tigers certainly brought the most explosive offensive attack to the table that West has seen to date in 2017.
But once again, however, West persevered.
Behind a masterful 33-carry, 180-yard rushing performance from Garrett Hurd, to go along with 178 total yards of offense — and three truly incredible scrambles — from Dylan Bradford, the West Senators stood tall at The Rock with a 31-27 victory over its SOC II counterpart in a classic conference affair that sat a capacity crowd on Friday evening in West Portsmouth.
For Ben Johnson, the contest showed off the physical and mental toughness that West brings to the table — the same traits that have guided West to its 8-0 record that includes a perfect 3-0 mark in games decided by six points or less.
“It was just another gritty, gutty performance by our guys,” Johnson said. “They battled, came from behind early, and just kept playing hard and making plays. It was very similar to a lot of the wins that we have had this year. We just kept battling it out, and a lot of guys made plays when they needed to make plays. We’ve been doing it all season, and we did it again tonight.”
From the opening kickoff, it was evident that West’s physical and mental toughness was going to be needed throughout as Waverly proved early on that it was going to be a tough out.
The Senators, who got the football to begin the contest, obtained a pair of first downs in moving the ball down to the Waverly 42 yard line.
However, Easton Wolf, who has proven to be a magnet for big plays throughout the year for the Tigers, made yet another on Friday evening when the junior leaped in the air to pick off a Bradford pass on third-and-eight to allow Waverly to set up shop on its own 13 yard line.
Then, on the ensuing drive, Wolf collected not one, not two, but three critical receptions — including two in third-down territory — to set up a 14-yard run by Howell that put Waverly ahead by a 7-0 margin with 4:09 left to play in the opening quarter of action.
But after West and Waverly traded a pair of three-and-outs, the West offense got rolling thanks to the play of its Big Three — Bradford, Hurd, and Josh Berry — and the offensive line.
After getting the ball at its own 29 with 1:49 to play in the first quarter, the Senators wasted no time chewing up yardage behind the big boys up front as an 11-yard run by Hurd, a 17-yard spurt by Berry to the far side of the field on an end-around, and a six-yard run by Bradford on a fourth-and-one put West in business at the Waverly 23 as the second quarter of play began.
And even though false start on second-and-nine put West behind the chains, it didn’t faze Bradford, or the West offense, one bit.
With Waverly bringing a heavy rush on second-and-14, Johnson and company made the perfect play call by putting Gabe Skaggs out in the flat on a screen pass. Johnson calmly found the 5-9, 200-pounder wide-open in the flat, and Skaggs wasted no time doing the rest en route to taking a 27-yard touchdown reception to the house as the Senators tied the score at seven aside with 9:38 to play in the opening half.
Bradford, who had gone 0-for-4 through the air in the passes preceding the 27-yard touchdown throw, went 4-for-4 for 96 yards and the 27-yard score to Skaggs from the second quarter on. The senior also ran for a stout 85 yards and two touchdowns on 12 carries on his way to establishing the overall flow of the contest from the quarterback position.
“Dylan’s been doing (great things from the quarterback position) all season long, and he just seems to show up in the big moments,” Johnson said. “He finds a way to make a big play. He drives you crazy a little bit, and you wonder what he’s doing, then, all of a sudden, he reels off big plays. It’s one of those, ‘No, no, no!!! Yes, yes, yes!!!’ type deals. I’m glad he’s my quarterback.”
On the ensuing Waverly drive, the Tigers continued to move the football effectively as Howell found Jordan for an eight-yard gain for a first down, then went right back to the well again as the senior signal-caller found the 6-2, 185-pound receiver for a nine-yard gain that went for another first down and had 15 additional yards put on top of it behind a personal foul from West.
However, Berry collected a critical five-yard sack on second down — West’s second such sack in as many quarters — that put Howell and company behind the chains. The 6-2, 205-pound signal-caller was forced to punt the football away on fourth down from the West 38, which gave the Senators the football back. Howell was dropped three times in the contest by West, who kept the senior on his heels despite Howell’s 22-for-30, 214-yard performance through the air that included a touchdown.
“Those sacks were huge,” Johnson said. “They’ve got an outstanding quarterback (in Clayton Howell) that just does an outstanding job. He knows how to get the ball out quick and where to get it to. We knew coming in that we had to get pressure on him if we were going to be successful, and those guys stepped up and made plays in crucial moments.”
Despite being backed up on its own five-yard line after an excellent pooch punt pinned West deep in its own territory, the Senators responded with yet another outstanding drive that basically summarized West’s season. The Senators obtained two vital third-down conversion runs from Bradford — six yards on a third-and-five — and Hurd — seven yards on a third-and-three — to keep the drive moving.
Then, four plays after Hurd’s critical conversion run, the former then ran for a masterful 35-yard scamper on a fourth-and-two to set West up inside the red zone, where the signal-caller officially cashed in the 16-play, 95-yard drive for six tallies with 11 seconds to play in the second quarter in capping off a drive that took an astounding 6:57 off of the first quarter clock and gave West a 14-7 advantage heading into the halftime break.
“We basically take the second half of the second quarter, possess the ball, and finish with a touchdown,” Johnson said. “That was a really crucial moment in the game. For us to be able to execute and score in the last few seconds of the first half was amazing. We’ve done that a few times this year, and I’m so proud of the guys for that on every single occasion.”
After fending off a 43-yard run on the first play from scrimmage by Howell in the second half of play, West used two big Blaine Weaver plays — a pass deflection at the line of scrimmage and a solo stop for no gain on a Kritzwiser run — to eventually force a fourth down stop. The West offense did the rest from there as Berry and Hurd combined to collect all but one of West’s 63 yards on an eight-play drive that resulted in a one-yard plunge from Bradford, which pushed the Senators’ lead to a 21-7 margin with 6:47 to play in the third quarter of action.
However, in the blink of an eye, Waverly immediately put together an answer. On the ensuing kickoff, Kritzwiser burst down the right seam and took the return back 98 yards for a touchdown to close the West lead back down to a seven-point margin, 21-14, with 6:34 to play in the third quarter of action.
Still, the attitude on the Senators’ sideline remained upbeat.
“We’re still ahead at that point,” Johnson said. “It’s one of those things where you come to terms with it, just leave it in the past, and move forward. You can’t worry about what happened on the last play. You’ve just got to make the next play.”
And not suprisingly, West followed with a critical play that gave the entire team a a massive lift on its following offensive possession.
After a high snap immediately put West in a second-and-29 situation, the Senators’ chances of scoring on the drive looked to be down the drain.
But after a five-yard run by Cody Staggs, Bradford, on a third-and-24 from West’s own 31 yard line, pulled off an incredible scramble for the ages as the junior broke a tackle, rolled out all the way to the far side of the field, then eluded several additional Waverly defenders in the process of moving back to the middle of the hashes. There, Bradford somehow unleashed a perfect pass on the move to L.T. Maynard, who caught the ball just past midfield on the near side numbers en route to pulling off a play rarely duplicated in the best of all backyard football plays, which led to a crucial field goal kick by Drew Cassidy that put West up by a 24-14 with 2:23 remaining in the third quarter of action.
“The initial play had broken down, and Dylan did an outstanding job of keeping the play alive,” Johnson said. “L.T. found the open area on the backside, and those guys found a way to make a big play. It’s not how we drew it up, but those guys made a big play when it needed to be made.”
Still, Waverly, behind the resolve of Howell and Kritzwiser, didn’t give in. In fact, two Howell to Cobe Marquez hookups allowed Kritzwiser to work his magic again as the senior scored from 14 yards out to cap off an eight-play, 67-yard drive that closed the West lead to a 24-21 margin with 11:41 to play in the affair.
However, Hurd wasn’t about to let West lose on its home field. The tough-as-nails junior responded on the next drive by collecting 35 yards on seven carries in what was an 11-play, 65-yard drive, and the 5-7, 155-pound running back’s will, along with two critical third-down conversions — one apiece from Bradford and Berry — allowed Hurd to cap off a six minute, four second drive with a 14 yard touchdown run en route to putting West up by a 31-21 tally with 5:31 to play.
Hurd, who came into the evening just 45 yards away from the golden mark of 1,000 yards rushing, came up with his usual fantastic effort en route to collecting 180 yards rushing and a touchdown on 33 carries. The junior needs just 45 tallies against Cincinnati Shroder next week to hit the magic number.
“Garrett’s a tough kid,” Johnson said. “It’s nothing but toughness and heart from him. He just runs it up in there. He’s not very big, but he’s strong, is tough as nails, and plays hard for his teammates and his brothers.”
After initially stopping Waverly in its track on its first scoring chance, a missed scoring opportunity by the Senators allowed Howell and the Tigers to gather momentum, and the signal-caller ultimately found Easton Wolf for a 16-yard touchdown that kept the lights on a bit longer when the lead was cut to 31-27 with less than two minutes to play. However, the enusing two-point conversion try was bobbled, and as a result, Howell was dropped in the backfield for a sack. The West offense then took care of business following its onside kick recovery and — behind an offense that converted eight of its 11 third-down attempts on the evening — garnered the final push it needed when Bradford gained 11 yards on a quarterback sneak to pick up the game’s final first down.
“Those are the money downs,” Johnson said of his team’s efficiency in managing the down-and-distance situations. “Those guys understand that when its third and fourth down, they’ve got to step it up a notch, and they did it again tonight.”
With the win, West improved to a perfect 8-0 on the year and 3-0 in conference action. The 31-27 result against Waverly, according to Joe Eitel, officially gives the Senators a berth in this year’s playoffs — which will mean that West will be playing in Week 11 for the first time since 2014.
Still, there is no time to start the party just yet — because West has even bigger goals on the horizon. To continue marching toward those goals, preparing properly for Cincinnati Shroder (2-6 in 2017) is a must.
“We’re going to come back in and evaluate this game,” Johnson said. “Then we’ll start gameplanning for (Cincinnati Shroder), continue to get better, and move forward.”
Reach Kevin Colley at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1930 OR on Twitter @ColleyKevin7