WEST PORTSMOUTH — At ‘The Rock’ in Friday’s Southern Ohio Conference Division II showdown between Portsmouth West and Valley, West was anything but socially distant to the Indians’ offensive players.
The Senators’ defense made crucial stops when needed most — limiting Valley to just eight first downs and surrendering just 256 yards of total offense, nearly half of which came on just two second-half plays.
West never trailed in its return to its home field for the first time since week one, defeating the visiting Indians 28-14 to improve to 2-2 — two-thirds of the way through the six-game shortened 2020 season.
The Senators’ offense wasted no time in giving their defense an early advantage to work with, scoring on their first play from scrimmage — a 62-yard touchdown pass from sophomore quarterback Mitchell Irwin to senior Luke Bradford, which help set the tone early in West’s favor.
“I thought our guys played hard and really good most of the night,” West coach Ben Johnson said following the win. “I thought we had good energy right off the bat getting that big score. That was something we talked about before the game, if we got good field position on that opening possession we were going to take a shot — and it worked out great for us. It’s nice to get that momentum early.”
In 22 total carries, West limited Valley to 107 total rushing yards, over half of which came on the Indians’ first play after receiving possession to begin the second half — a 60-yard touchdown run by sophomore quarterback Carter Nickel — cutting West’s lead down to 14-7.
Aside from the Nickel breakaway run up-the-sideline, the Senators’ upperclassman-heavy defensive line and balanced linebacking corps held Valley to just 47 yards on 21 carries for a 2.24 yards per carry average.
Sophomores Ashton Klaiber and Ryan Sissel each totaled eight tackles apiece, while seniors Carl Howard and Eli Tilley had five apiece.
The big stops didn’t halt there for Howard and Tilley, however.
Tilley had the Senators’ lone sack of Nickel for a loss of 10, and Howard recovered the Indians’ lone lost fumble on a muffed punt in the second quarter — as Valley was about to assume possession.
Following the recovered fumble, West completed a nine-play, 69-yard drive capped off by an Irwin pass to freshman playmaker Jeffery Bishop for a 28-yard score.
Senior placekicker Caleb Hazelbaker booted his second of four made PATs to give West a 14-0 lead with 3:29 to play before half.
“It’s been something that we’ve been pretty good at stopping all season,” Johnson said of his team’s run-stopping ability. “There’s a few things that we’ll need to look at, did give up that big run and that’s something we’re going to have to learn and get better from. Stout against the run all season long, we’ve got some veteran guys up on that defensive front and I think that shows.”
Valley coach Darren Crabtree added that while Nickel’s 60-yard run helped break them into the scoring column to begin the third, the Indians weren’t able to establish their running attack well enough with sophomore George Arnett — who was held to 17 yards on just 10 carries.
“We got behind 14, tried to run the ball and we weren’t as successful as I would have liked,” Crabtree said. “We tried taking advantage of Perkins in one-on-one coverage any chance we could. The strength of their defense, their interior linebackers and No.-63, the defensive end, made it tough to run at times.”
Undeterred by Valley’s efficiency to begin the half, West answered and unleashed the game’s longest drive by both plays and time possessed — a 16-play, 75-yard drive that rolled seven minutes and 25 seconds off the game clock and resulted in an Irwin 1-yard touchdown run to push the Senators back ahead by two scores.
Valley, again, showcased its big-play ability after receiving the West kickoff, scoring on its third play from scrimmage in the second half — a 61-yard touchdown from Nickel to sophomore receiver Ty Perkins to make it 21-14 Senators with 3:13 left in the third.
The Perkins touchdown grab followed by Chase Ruby’s second of two made PATs signaled the final Indians’ points of the game in the two-score loss.
West answered its opponents’ big plays in the third with game-changing plays of its own in the fourth.
Senators sophomore Brandon Anderson intercepted a Nickel pass while the Indians had possession from their own 7-yard line — setting up a trick-play touchdown pass from Bishop to Bradford for his second scoring grab of the game.
“They score on the first play of the game and we find ourself in a 7-0 hole, had the ball inside the 10 twice but don’t score in the first half,” Crabtree said. “We cut the lead to seven, thought we were right back in it. We just kept giving up too many big plays on defense. Had our opportunities but didn’t do anything with it in the first half. Second half we couldn’t get a stop when we needed it. Hats off to West, they made the adjustments and put enough points up to win.”
Bradford caught six passes from Irwin and one from Bishop, totaling a game-high seven receptions for 114 yards and two scores.
In addition to his touchdown pass to Bradford for the game’s final score and a first-quarter touchdown which was erased due to a holding penalty, Bishop had six carries for 26 yards and three catches for 69 yards — exemplifying why, even as a freshman, Johnson trusts the youngster with the ball in his hands.
“He’s really stepping up and making big plays for us as a freshman,” Johnson said of Bishop. “He’s shown his ability to make plays in the passing game and in the running game. He’s a really hard worker and I’m proud of the way he’s continuing to progress through his freshman year.”
Irwin finished the game 14-of-18 in passing for a season-high 255 yards and three touchdowns — two by air and one on the ground.
Sophomore running back Brandon Potter and Irwin each had nine carries apiece to lead the Senators in rushing attempts.
Potter replaced senior back Hunter Brown, who was sidelined in the second half due to an injury.
The Senators may be younger than some in their key skill positions, but the group of West underclassmen has continued to grow — and has played a key part in West improving back to the .500 mark with just two games to play in the regular season.
“We’ve got good numbers in those grades, they’re hard-working kids and there’s talent there,” Johnson said of his underclassmen. “When you put all that together, it’s a good formula. You’re still going to take some growing pains with those young guys, but each week they keep getting better and better and that’s all you can hope for.”
With the loss — its third straight since league play began in week two — Valley falls to 1-3 and will travel to face Wheelersburg in week five before hosting Minford in week six.
Crabtree himself has a young team, with sophomores filling out several key skill positions on the offensive side.
As the Indians power into their final two weeks of the regular season, he’s hoping to see competitiveness and improvement as his 31st year as the head coach in Lucasville winds down before Valley begins its postseason march.
“I just want to see us try and compete and get better,” Crabtree said. “We made some plays tonight at times that were good, but we’re still having too many penalties, too many turnovers. Two very good opponents coming up the next two weeks, we’ve just got to keep battling and keep playing.”
West — now sitting squarely at .500 with two weeks to play in the regular season — will travel to Oak Hill to face the Oaks next Friday, before hosting Wheelersburg in week six.
The Oaks defeated the Senators at ‘The Rock’ 32-7 a year ago — and will be coming off a 27-21 home win over Minford in week four.
They are welcoming West to their home turf for the first time as league opponents.
“Oak Hill’s going to come out and play smash-mouth,” Johnson said. “So we’ve really got to come out and get ready to play a physical game. We’ve got to get healed up from tonight and be ready to play a physical, four-quarter game.”
Valley — 0 0 14 0 — 14
West — 7 7 7 7 — 28
W — Luke Bradford, 62-yard pass from Mitchell Irwin (Caleb Hazelbaker PAT good), 11:45 1Q (7-0 W)
W — Jeffery Bishop, 28-yard pass from Mitchell Irwin (Caleb Hazelbaker PAT good), 3:29 2Q (14-0 W)
V — Carter Nickel, 60-yard run (Chase Ruby PAT good), 11:42 3Q (14-7 W)
W — Mitchell Irwin, 1-yard run (Caleb Hazelbaker PAT good), 4:17 3Q (21-7 W)
V — Ty Perkins, 61-yard pass from Carter Nickel (Chase Ruby PAT good), 3:13 3Q (21-14 W)
W — Luke Bradford, 20-yard pass from Jeffery Bishop (Caleb Hazelbaker PAT good), 9:25 4Q (28-14 W)
|Yards (Passing-Rushing)||225 (151-74)||348 (255-93)|
|Penalties||7 for 64||10 for 80|
|Time of possession||20:44||27:16|
Passing — Valley: Carter Nickel 9-21 151 1 TD 1 INT; West: Mitchell Irwin 14-18 255 2 TDs, Jeffery Bishop 1-1 20 TD
Rushing — Valley: Carter Nickel 11-74 TD, George Arnett 10-17, Colton Buckle 1-3; West: Hunter Brown 7-30, Brandon Potter 9-29, Jeffery Bishop 6-26, Ryan Sissel 3-5, Mitchell Irwin 9-2 TD
Receiving — Valley: Ty Perkins 4-106 TD, Jayden Duncan 4-43, George Arnett 1-2; West: Luke Bradford 7-114 2 TDs, Andrew Jones 2-72, Jeffery Bishop 3-69 TD, Ryan Sissel 2-11, Hunter Brown 1-9