WEST PORTSMOUTH — The Block at the Rock was jumping on Friday night.
For the second time in school history, Portsmouth West was hosting a home playoff game. The Senators welcomed Martins Ferry to town, and were able to grind out a 10-6 victory over the Purple Riders.
With the win, West will advance to the second round of the playoffs for the first time since 2011.
“We’re thrilled,” Senators head coach Ben Johnson said. “I’m just so proud of our guys that played so hard tonight, battled back from some adversity and overcame it in the end.”
In a contest that figured to be decided by ball control and whoever could control the line of scrimmage, West prevailed in the war of the trenches.
Garrett Hurd continued his year to remember with 24 carries for 147 yards. Quarterback Dylan Bradford added 57 yards on 14 runs, and Cody Staggs totaled five rushes for 32 yards.
“It feels good knowing that there’s only four teams in West history to win a playoff game, and we’re one of them now,” Cody Staggs said after the game.
While the offense did just enough to get the job done, it was the defense and special teams that helped secure the game for the Senators.
“That’s just what happens in the playoffs, you’ve got to find a way to win,” Johnson said. “It doesn’t matter what it looks like, you win and advance.”
The battle started as soon as the first whistle was blown, and Martins Ferry opened with possession. The Purple Riders were held in check to start the game, and punted away to West quickly.
On the opening drive for the Senators, things looked promising with a couple first downs. However, the West progress was stalled after a 4th down and 4 Bradford run that was stopped short.
As Martins Ferry took the field for the second time, not much changed. In fact, the Purple Riders quickly found themselves behind the chains and were forced to punt after picking up an early first down.
The Senators seemed destined for a score on their second drive, especially after a Cody Staggs diving catch on the right sideline.
“He’s had an outstanding season,” Johnson said about his senior. “He’s had to step up a little bit after Josh Berry went out and step into that role, and he’s done an outstanding job.”
“Ever since he’s come in to that role, he’s really taken it in to another notch. He’s made plays all season long.”
Still making their way down the field, Bradford and the West offense was now faced with a 3rd down and 9 at the Martins Ferry 22 yard line.
Bradford tried to find Cody Staggs once more, but his pass wound up incomplete. On fourth down, Drew Cassidy came in to kick for West but his attempt was blocked and recovered by the Purple Riders.
That block provided some energy for Martins Ferry, who used that edge to their advantage. On an 18 play, 81 yard drive that took nearly eight minutes off the clock, the Purple Riders put points on the board with a Dalton Hoover one yard touchdown run.
However, the extra point attempt missed to the right. With 3:11 remaining in the first half, Martins Ferry led West by a score of 6-0.
The scoring drive came with some help from the Senators, as West was whistled for four penalties in the series. One of those calls was a holding against the Senators on a 4th down and 4, which proved to be pivotal.
“On their scoring drive, we really helped them with some penalties,” Johnson said. “But really other than that, the defense played well all night and it’s just those guys executing and playing their responsibilities.”
Beyond that scoring drive, West was dialed in on defense. The Senators did have a scare, though, as their offense sputtered following the touchdown drive and the ball was back in the hands of the Purple Riders.
As the clock was winding down before halftime, Martins Ferry was moving the ball on the ground. Nate Boxley caught some blockers and hit the outside for a 45 yard touchdown score with eight seconds before the break, but a flag negated the score.
“I saw the penalty flag thrown early in that play, so my stress was a little lower than what it probably would’ve been,” Johnson said. “That was a huge play, and definitely would’ve changed the momentum and everything going in to the half. We were fortunate right there.”
At halftime, West trailed 6-0.
Fortunately for the Senators, they would start the second half with the football. Junior Cole Staggs found a lane on the opening kickoff, copping a 46 yard return all the way to the 37 yard line of the Purple Riders.
“We knew it was going to be a battle of two very similar teams, and somewhere you have to find an edge in there,” Johnson said. “We were able to get that edge with our special teams.”
While Cole contributed on the kickoff, Cody got it done on offense. A 27 yard reverse to Cody Staggs put West at the Martins Ferry 8 yard line.
After two runs, the Senators needed to score on 3rd down and goal from nine yards out. Bradford rolled out to his right and found a wide open sophomore Caleb Journey for the score.
“It’s the first [touchdown] of the year for me,” Journey said. “I was really, really excited.”
“I came out, and there was nobody around me. Simple as that, he just threw it to me.”
The extra point from the leg of Cassidy gave West a one point lead with 9:15 left in the third quarter.
To their credit, the Purple Riders weren’t worried about trailing. A 45 yard Boxley run on the first play on offense put Martins Ferry at the Senators’ 25 yard line.
West bent, but didn’t break.
On the very next play, Gabe Skaggs stripped the ball from the Purple Riders, and Jakeb Guilkey recovered.
Back in business, the Senators were looking to score and open up their lead. A 50 yard run from Hurd put West at the Purple Riders’ 32 yard line.
“He just runs hard,” Johnson said about Hurd. “He finds the gaps behind those big offensive linemen, he hides behind them, and then shoots the gap.
“He just never gives up, he keeps fighting and he’s done it all year long. He had a great night tonight.”
Just two plays later, though, Bradford was intercepted by a Martins Ferry player.
After the stopped momentum, it looked like the Purple Riders could climb back into things. But, the stout Senators defense wasn’t going to allow that.
West forced a three and out, and had excellent field position at midfield to start their next drive.
It seemed like the Senators were going to go three plays and out themselves, and in fact lined up to punt. West wound up faking the punt, and Hurd ran for 24 yards and a new set of downs on a sweep to the right.
With the promising drive still in progress, the Senators soon found themselves behind the sticks after some negative plays and a penalty. Against a 3rd down and 22, Bradford was intercepted again. This time it was Cory Bennett who made the play for the Purple Riders.
“You’ve got to give them credit too,” Johnson said. “They stepped up and made plays when they had to as well many times during the game, and they’re a great football team as well.”
Bennett’s pick gave new life, but he was ruled down at the one yard line. So, Martins Ferry would need 99 yards to try and snatch the lead back. They wouldn’t be able to do that, or get a first down for that matter.
They did however get an exceptional punt from Jacob Probst that bounced for 50 yards. West took over at their own 42, and knew they would need to get some points or at the least kill some clock.
On what ended up being a 15 play drive, the Senators scored on a 28 yard field goal from Cassidy to take a 10-6 lead with only 4:33 left to play.
Still with some life, the Purple Riders had a prime opportunity and plenty of time to put themselves back on top.
It looked as though Martins Ferry might do just that, as they quickly crossed midfield into West territory. After three straight runs, the Purple Riders tried to sneak a play action pass in on 3rd down and 3, but it bounced off RayQuan Prayear’s hands incomplete.
Now faced with a 4th down and the absolute need to convert to stay alive, Probst attempted a short screen pass to Hoover. The Senators snuffed it out, stopping the senior short to give the offense the football back with 2:53 to go.
West worked the clock, and picked up a first down. The Purple Riders gave themselves a chance with a stop later in the drive, but had only 11 seconds remaining.
Shaun Jeter fielded a punt and tried to dance free, but was corralled as the clock hit zero. The Senators had survived 10-6 with a smash mouth effort from all three phases of the field.
“I feel like we were more conditioned than they were, and we just ran the ball and they were all just tired,” Cody Staggs said. “We just kept on running and kept on running.”
Journey saw much of the same from West on their way to a win.
“We just pounded the rock,” Journey said. “Kept running the ball, and we physically beat them.”
The Senators will move on to the second round to face Johnstown-Monroe next Friday. The Johnnies of Johnstown-Monroe beat Oak Hill 35-0 to move on as well.
“Being from central Ohio, I know a little bit about Johnstown,” Johnson said. “I know they’re a really similar style team as well, they like to run the ball.
“They’ll run a lot of I-formation, and it’ll look a lot like we do. It’ll be a huge challenge for us, and we’re excited to be moving on in the tournament.”
Martins Ferry – Dalton Hoover 1 yd run (XP missed) 6-0
Portsmouth West – Caleb Journey 9 yd pass from Dylan Bradford (PAT) 7-6
Portsmouth West – Drew Cassidy 28 yd field goal 10-6
Reach Benjamin Spicer at (502)264-7318 on Twitter @BSpicerPDT or at Facebook.com/ReporterBenSpicer