WHEELERSBURG — Anytime a rivalry affair draws near, there’s bound to be some hype to go along with it.
However, this year’s Halloween Bowl between the Wheelersburg Pirates and the West Senators — with both teams sitting at 9-0 and 3-0 in SOC II football action — may have been as hyped as any contest between the two programs in the history of the rivalry.
And on Friday, both teams showed the standing-room-only crowd why they, indeed, were 9-0 coming into the final week of the regular season.
But in this hard-hitting, clean, and exciting contest that felt closer than the final score indicated, the Wheelersburg Pirates, again, showed off its flawless execution and preparation.
Wheelersburg, who had won 34 straight regular-season contests coming into the affair, used a stingy run defense, 294 yards passing and three touchdowns from Trent Salyers, a 108-yard receiving performance from Tanner Holden, and a breakout performance from Makya Matthews en route to garnering an impressive 41-6 victory over the West Senators on Friday evening at Ed Miller Stadium in Wheelersburg — which also will go down in the record books as Rob Woodward’s 100th win as a head coach.
As impressive as the victory was, the truly scary part about this contest is that Woodward actually noticed further gains from a unit that finished the regular season by collecting an overall scoring margin of 445-81 while holding its opponents to just 2.1 yards per carry over the first 10 weeks.
“We showed growth tonight,” Woodward said. “As a coach, you try to see if your team is progressing and if you are playing your best football late in the season. My gosh, we are playing our best football. It’s the strongest we’ve ever been at this point in the season. I’ve got kids breaking PR’s in the weight room right now. We’re strong physically, but we’re also showing that we’re strong mentally by facing adversity and responding to it. We’re coming to practice jacked up and energized. It’s so exciting.”
Even with the loss, however, Ben Johnson’s group certainly didn’t show any let up. That was proven throughout the game, as West drove the football inside the Wheelersburg 40 on four separate possessions throughout the affair.
“I was really proud of the way that our guys battled,” Johnson said. “We gave up some big plays in the first half, but really came out in the second half and played really tough. I was really proud of our guys for that. We’ve had an outstanding regular season, and we’re privileged to get a home playoff game. We’re really excited about the opportunity to play in front of our home fans, and continue the strong season that we’re having.”
And initially, it was West who made the strongest opening statement.
After returning a kickoff to the Wheelersburg 25, it took the Senators just 12 seconds to strike paydirt as Dylan Bradford fired a pass to Cody Staggs out toward the West sideline. Ever the playmaker, the senior broke several tackles and raced down the far side for a 75-yard touchdown reception that immediately put West in front by a 7-0 tally with 11:42 to play in the opening quarter of action.
“Dylan got the ball out to him quick, and Cody made the move, broke a tackle, and he was off to the races,” Johnson said. “It was an exciting start.”
“When (Cody) Staggs starts a game off like that,” Woodward said, “it says a lot about not only him, but West’s fight and toughness themselves.”
From that opening play to the last two minutes of the quarter, West showed extreme stinginess on both of the football as the Senators forced Wheelersburg into two consecutive three-and-outs, with a two-yard sack by Hunter Reed and a huge hit by Kane Lewis on a Bryson Keeney reception that set the Pirates back four additional yards being the main headliners.
Then, with the ball in the hands of Bradford and Co. once again, West proceeded to show off its efficient ball control offense, as well as its poise within said offense.
Behind Bradford — who completed a nine-yard pass to LT Maynard on third-and-nine, and ran for two additional yards on a third-and-two — the Senators threatened again as West drove down to the Wheelersburg 37-yard line.
However, a critical 16-yard sack by Pirates on a second-and-eight put West behind the chains, and the Senators were forced to punt with less than two minutes to play in the opening quarter.
There, Wheelersburg wasted no time taking advantage.
Despite a personal foul that took 15 yards off of a 44-yard pass reception from Avery Donini, and a two-yard loss on a jet sweep, Salyers and Holden were able to connect on the very next play as the former found the latter on a beautiful touch pass down the middle of the hashes for a 41-yard touchdown to even the score with 22.9 seconds left in the opening quarter of action.
Holden’s 41-yard touchdown reception, which gave the junior 17 receiving touchdowns for the year, officially surpassed the old mark of 16 set by Dylan Miller in 2013. His 11 receptions for 108 yards allowed the 6-6 wideout to officially finish with 59 receptions for 1,174 yards during the regular season — the latter mark being another school record.
“Trent just threaded the needle right there, and Tanner’s like, ‘I got him beat, just put it where it needs to be,’ and he did,” Woodward said. “Those two have connected throughout their careers a number of times, but none bigger than that right there because that’s what we needed in order to spark ourselves and get back.”
West, however, continued to come back. On the ensuing kickoff, Cole Staggs took off to the races on a 69-yard kickoff return that put the Senators inside the Wheelersburg 35. Bradford, however, was again dropped behind the line of scrimmage just before the end of the first quarter, and the Senators only muster one yard as the Pirates forced West to turn the ball over on downs.
That big stand, however, was only a buildup of what was to come.
After forcing two critical incompletions, the Senators looked like they had yet another big stop as Wheelersburg faced a fourth-and-four on its own end of the field. However, Xander Carmichael changed that in a hurry by rifling a pass in to Holden for 12 yards on the far side of the field.
“Xander Carmichael with the fake punt pass, sheeew!” Woodward said. “He put an absolute laser in there, and threw it to none other than Tanner Holden. We got a lot of options on all of those plays. That was a big turning point in the game. Just terrific. It really got the momentum where we needed it to be.”
From there, it only took two Trent Salyers passes — a 22-yard bullet to Makya Matthews and an 11-yard pass to Mack Dyer — to set up a one-yard touchdown by Salyers himself with 8:20 remaining in the second quarter.
Then, after carrying over its intensity to the defensive side of the football in forcing another three-and-out, Wheelersburg wasted no time capitalizing again as Matthews began making his presence felt during the contest by returning a punt 32 yards to the West 25, which ultimately set up a five-yard touchdown pass from Salyers to Cole Lowery with 5:53 remaining in the second quarter of play.
“Our guys really hunkered down after the initial score,” Woodward said. “They knew that they made some mistakes, but they didn’t let that bother them or get down because of it. The guys really came out and played great.”
Bradford, however, showed excellent poise for West on the next series. The junior quarterback, who competed 13 of his 25 passes for 209 yards on the evening, immediately fired a 12-yard pass to Cody Staggs on the first play of the ensuing drive, and found Garrett Hurd four plays later for a huge 34-yard reception on a third-and-nine to again move West into Wheelersburg territory after initially starting the drive from its own 20 yard line.
But after advancing down to the Pirates’ 24 yard line, the Wheelersburg defense — who held West to 40 yards on 35 carries — bowed up once again, and after forcing an incomplete pass from Bradford, stopped the junior signal-caller in his tracks by forcing a four-yard loss on a fourth-and-four to force West into another turnover on downs.
“Wheelersburg’s an outstanding football team, and you’ve got to give credit to them for stepping up and making those plays when they needed to,” Johnson said. “We’ve got to get better, obviously. We’ll take a look at this film. Our guys have done an outstanding job all year long of learning from their mistakes and growing from them. I believe we’ll continue to move forward and do just that.”
“Our guys were so disciplined,” Woodward said. “(Garrett) Hurd is so good at squeaking out of there, but the guys stayed disciplined and bottled him up. They did not overpursue. He is so good at starting one way, then bending it back another, that it makes him tough to stop. But the guys stayed right in there, hunkered down, and were able to continue to battle. They also made it hard for (Dylan) Bradford. They put pressure on him when we needed to. Chris Bailey came in and did a great job. He had a couple of big sacks.”
After obtaining the stop, Matthews, once again, displayed his full array of talents. With two minutes and 21 seconds remaining until the halftime break, the sophomore took a swing pass from Salyers and raced 59 yards down to the West 20. The sophomore then scored just four plays later by taking a second swing pass, dodging a Senator, and racing the remaining 11 yards to the house with just 22.5 seconds remaining in the opening half of play to give West a 27-7 lead at halftime.
“We started to do a really good job of orchestrating what the defense was giving us, and working our way down the field,” Woodward said. “I thought our conditioning really played a big factor. We did a good job of utilizing players, really putting the pedal to the medal, and trying to wear West out. We did a good job of that.”
In the third quarter of play, both teams took their turns going on long drives. Wheelersburg started the half off by going on a nine-play drive that put Jalen Miller in field goal range, but Miller’s 37-yard field goal attempt was blocked by Cody Staggs. In response to that block, the West offense, behind the hard-nosed running of Hurd and an 18-yard pass from Bradford to Caleb Journey, rallied once again as the Senators again drove into Pirate territory, but after driving down to the Wheelersburg 37, the Pirates, again, forced West to turn the ball over on downs as the third quarter came and went without a salvo.
“We did some good things in this game,” Johnson said. “The scoreboard doesn’t show that. We moved the ball a little bit and had some opportunities; we just weren’t able to take advantage of them tonight.”
And ultimately, the relentless pressure that Wheelersburg applied offensively proved to be too much to overcome.
After getting the ball back just eight seconds into the fourth quarter of action, the Pirates rode the impressive grit of Ashton Clevenger into 18 yards. Clevenger’s hard running, along with receptions of 12 and nine yards, respectively, by Holden, set up a brilliantly-executed 50-yard touchdown keeper by Salyers, who — thanks to the help of an excellent block downfield by Donini — ran the whole distance untouched up the gut for the score to put Wheelersburg up by a 34-6 margin with 8:08 to play.
“What a big play by Trent on that quarterback keeper,” Woodward said. “He got a big block downfield by Avery Donini that was really key in that. That was a great way to really seal things off and get us where we needed to be.”
Matthews, however, wanted to officially put the cherry on top of Wheelersburg’s fourth straight gold ball. On West’s ensuing drive, the 5-9, 175-pound standout picked off a Bradford pass at the Pirates’ 30-yard line, dodged several Senators en route to moving from the near side of the field to the far sideline, and sprinted the rest of the distance untouched for a 70-yard interception return to cap off a true breakout performance — and a 41-6 Wheelersburg victory.
“What a game by Makya,” Woodward said. “Two touchdowns on two big plays. Just an explosive player. We’ve seen that all year. He’s just been getting more comfortable with the offense throughout the year, and has been doing a great job of learning where he can impact the game. We, as coaches, are also learning where he can impact the game. What a game. That was quite a breakout game for him. He’s going to continue to be a great player for us, and it’s only going to continue here in the playoffs.”
With the victory, Woodward, who obtained his 100th victory in grand fashion, led Wheelersburg to its 35th consecutive regular season victory — a school mark.
“It’s surreal,” Woodward said. “I remember the first one. That’s what I told the players after the game. I showed them a ball, and said, ‘This will mean something later.’ I was referencing to the fact that I’ve got No. 1 sitting at my house, and I remember everything that happened with that. Now, I’ll have the ball for win No. 100 sitting in my house, and I’ll be thinking about not only what happened in tonight’s game, but what all has happened throughout the 10 years that I have been a head coach here, and the great assistants that I have and the job that they do working together. The community support, the Mom’s group each year that have helped contribute to the wins that we’ve had. But this senior class, man, what a great memory tonight to have, especially to have that win with this group and the job that they’ve done throughout their three years in high school. They’ve all been a part of those 35 straight regular season wins, and that’s outstanding.”
As for Johnson, the contest certainly didn’t go as he, or his team, had hoped it would go. But West, with a 9-1 record and a home playoff game in the bag, still has plenty to be proud of — and a rematch, which would occur on Nov. 17, certainly isn’t out of the question.
“We’re so excited to get a home playoff game,” Johnson said. “I’m proud of our kids. We’ve had a great season. I’m proud to be a West Senator. Our community has backed us 100 percent. It’s been a great experience, and we’re thrilled to be able to keep it going.”
Reach Kevin Colley at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1930 OR on Twitter @KColleyPDT