WHEELERSBURG — Matthew Miller may not have ended up as Wheelersburg’s starting quarterback —either this year or last.
However, he has sure not forgotten how to throw the football.
That’s because Miller, the senior all-purpose Pirate standout, threw two crucial — and more importantly completed — passes on Saturday night, which kept the Pirates’ possession of the season still alive.
The end result was arguably Wheelersburg’s most impactful touchdown of the entire 2020 campaign, en route to easily its most meaningful win.
The Pirates crafted a massive and impressive 15-play, 98-yard, six-minute and 25-second scoring march — putting the finishing touches on a 31-21 Division V Region 19 quarterfinal victory over visiting Columbus Bishop Ready inside amped-up Ed Miller Stadium.
With the win, the Pirates extended their OHSAA regional quarterfinal winning streak to eight, as this is the ninth consecutive season in which Wheelersburg has not only competed in the playoffs — but also has hosted a regional quarterfinal.
The now 7-1 Pirates are the third-seeded squad in Region 19, and defeated sixth-seeded and 6-3 Ready for the third meeting in a row —including the second straight in a Division V regional quarters tilt.
“I can’t say enough about what our seniors, our entire team as a whole, has done this year to this point,” said Wheelersburg coach Rob Woodward. “They just go out and work extremely hard, and it’s one of the best-conditioned and physical groups I’ve ever had. Their work in the program, as a whole and regardless of the wins, has just been above and beyond.”
When Wheelersburg won its second state championship three years ago, the Pirates’ postseason march to a perfect 15-0 banner began with a decisive shutout (34-0) of the Silver Knights.
While Saturday’s showdown was much more nip-and-tuck, the Pirates prevailed —and thus advanced to next Saturday’s (Oct. 31) Region 19 semifinals at second-seeded and undefeated (8-0) Ridgewood.
That’s right, that’s the same unbeaten Ridgewood squad that earned itself a measure of playoff revenge last year —defeating the Pirates in the Region 19 semis 42-17.
In another quarterfinal affair, the Generals rolled Liberty Union 43-7 —helping setting up the regional rematch.
But while Ridgewood put away early its encounter against the visiting Lions, only with 25 seconds remaining was Wheelersburg assured of a triumph over the Silver Knights.
Although, it was Wheelersburg’s third-quarter clock-devouring drive — and a 2-of-2 perfect passing performance by Miller — that likely will be remembered most.
With Wheelersburg clinging to a 17-14 advantage at the 5:35 mark, Ready placekicker and punter Evan O’Connell pinned the Pirates deep with a 47-yard punt that rolled dead at the 2-yard-line.
Eli Swords carried four consecutive carries for 20 yards out to the 23, but the Pirates faced a 4th-down-and-inches situation at their own 33.
While Woodward may or may not be a riverboat gambler, he definitely rolled the dice on the Pirates’ next play —putting in a “jumbo” package, which included senior lineman Blake Richardson as the fullback.
Right on cue, and with what many observers inside Ed Miller Stadium said could actually feel coming, Richardson — listed at six-foot three inches tall and weighing 270 pounds — actually took the handoff, and cleanly dove off the right side for the first down.
“Big fourth down play there,” said Woodward. “Blake is really a coach on the field, and understands so much offensively and defensively what’s needed in situations. He’s a brute in there on the interior, very locked in and aggressive in his play, and is able to make some big plays for us.”
That was actually one of five first downs for the drive, although — believe it or not — the next two, were by far, of even greater consequence.
With 2nd-down-and-10 at the Pirate 34, quarterback Jake Gregg threw backwards to the wideout Miller —who threw a left-handed pass of his own to Case Dyer.
Miller made the pitch, Dyer had the catch, and 39 yards later —Wheelersburg was in Ready territory at the 27.
Two plays after that, the Pirates repeated the feat —and Miller once again connected with Dyer, this one right along the sideline for 30 yards all the way to just outside the goal line.
Finally, just 50 seconds into the final stanza, Swords scored from two yards out —as the Pirates pushed the lead back to 10 for the second time at 24-14 with Braxton Sammons’ third of four extra-point kicks.
Woodward agreed that particular Pirates’ drive was the game’s difference-maker.
“We got backed up with field position, but our guys grinded it out. Huge props to Eli Swords. That’s the best I’ve seen him run the football. He was running downhill all night and got in the end zone off that drive. He got in behind that offensive line and did some of the things we asked him to do. Matthew (Miller) as well with the two passes he had,” said the coach. “He kept the chains moving in that drive twice, and that was huge.”
But, that march was just the first for the Pirates in the second half —that involved Gregg, Swords, Miller, situational-quarterback Kenny Sanderlin and Woodward with a critical coaching decision.
Although, it actually started with an officials’ ruling and a Ready penalty — as the Silver Knights attempted an onside kick.
After Ready responded with a 10-play, 57-yard, four-minute and 22-second scoring drive of its own to make it a three-point game (24-21) again, it recovered the onsider — or initially appeared to right at midfield with 6:38 remaining.
But the officials ruled the Silver Knights touched the ball before it rolled the necessary 10 yards, giving the Pirates possession at the Ready 49.
Wheelersburg went nine plays in three minutes and 53 seconds, as Gregg completed passes of six yards to Josh Clark and two for 12 and four yards to Miller —while Swords carried back-to-back for gainers of six and eight.
The Pirates then faced 4th-and-3 from the 8-yard line, as Woodward took a timeout —weighting whether to attempt another Sammons field goal or go for the first down.
Enter not Sandman but instead Sanderlin, who took the snap and bulldozed his way up the middle for those final eight yards to paydirt.
Sammons calmly kicked another extra point, making it 31-21 with 2:45 to play.
Once again, the Pirates played their cards not just carefully, but to near perfection on another possession.
Woodward credited his offensive coordinator and assistant coach Tom Kaskey, who saw something with the Silver Knights’ defense from earlier — and “felt strongly about it and went with it.”
“We had a lot of different options there, and Coach (Tom) Kaskey dialed up exactly what we needed,” he said. “And Kenny executed along with the rest of the guys in order to get in the end zone.”
Kaskey’s play-calling produced a diverse mixed bag of overall offensive balance —with 22 first downs and 318 yards on 62 total plays.
The Pirates passed for 208 on 23 attempts and rushed for 110 on 39 totes, as Gregg completed all but three of his 21 passes for 139 yards and a beautiful 20-yard touchdown toss to Miller — which was for Wheelersburg’s first 10-point cushion at 17-7 with 7:10 to play in the second quarter.
Most of Gregg’s throws, especially to Miller, were right at the line of scrimmage —as Miller managed yardage with his feet following the reception.
Miller made nine receptions for 81 yards, including six for 66 and his first-half touchdown catch.
“I thought Ready was very aggressive out on the edge, and ran that shell defense. We’re always looking to try and take what the defense gives us in certain situations and utilize our athletes,” said Woodward. “We try to use a play as much as we can to our advantage.”
On the ground, Derrick Lattimore led the way with 58 yards on 13 carries, as Swords saw 10 touches for 56.
Eric Lattimore got the scoring started with a 15-yard run just four minutes in, as the Pirates promptly pressed five plays and 77 yards after their first defensive stop —as Swords rushed once for 15, Gregg found Dyer for 16, and the Silver Knights committed two 15-yard penalties on the series.
Wheelersburg went 12 minutes and 46 seconds between first-half touchdowns, but broke the monotony when Sammons connected on a 42-yard field goal on the opening play of the second stanza.
Those precious three points ended an 11-play drive that spanned between the 25s — as Gregg completed two passes to Miller for 13 and 14 yards, following a 19-yard hookup with tight end Caleb Arthur.
Derrick Lattimore’s longest rush, and for the Pirates as a team, was his 18-yard gainer on the final play prior to the field goal.
Clark caught four passes for 25 yards, but made two interceptions of Ready quarterback Darius Parham —plus he broke up Parham’s pass in the end zone with Ready trailing 31-21 and the Silver Knights facing 4th-down at the Pirates’ six.
That was with 25 seconds to go —and was the final offensive play in Ready’s season.
“Defensively, we made some great plays in the secondary and defended the pass extremely well,” said Woodward. “We stepped up and did what we needed to do.”
The Silver Knights scored three touchdowns to once tie (7-7) and twice to get within three (17-14 and 24-21), as O’Connell kicked 3-of-3 extra points.
Brian Fitzsimmons scored short TD runs of four and three yards for their first two, tying the game at the five-minute mark of the first quarter before bringing Ready to 17-14 exactly 16 minutes later.
Halfway through the fourth, Parham posted a 13-yard touchdown pass to Andy Schulze —making it 24-21 before the Pirates’ second second-half scoring drive.
Fitzsimmons finished with only 36 yards on a dozen carries, as Parham had 13 rushes for 88 yards —and threw for 102 on 8-of-11.
Schulze caught three balls for 75 yards, and carried three times for another 44.
Woodward said his Pirates’ ability to control the lines of scrimmage proved pivotal.
“Ultimately, we did do that,” he said. “I was really pleased with how our guys up front performed.”
Indeed, from the offensive front lines to the defensive back end, it was pretty much “Miller” time on Saturday night inside Ed Miller Stadium.
* * *
Wheelersburg 31, Ready 21
Bishop Ready 7 7 0 7 —21
Wheelersburg 7 10 0 14 —31
W— Eric Lattimore, 15-yard run (Braxton Sammons kick), 7:56, 1st (7-0 W)
R— Brian Fitzsimmons, 4-yard run (Evan O’Connell kick), 5:04, 1st (7-7 tie)
W— Braxton Sammons, 42-yard field goal, 11:39, 2nd (10-7 W)
W— Matthew Miller, 20-yard pass from Jake Gregg (Braxton Sammons kick), 7:10, 2nd (17-7 W)
R— Brian Fitzsimmons, 3-yard run (Evan O’Connell kick), 1:07, 2nd (17-14 W)
W — Eli Swords, 2-yard run (Braxton Sammons kick), 11:10, 4th (24-14 W)
R — Andy Schulze, 13-yard pass from Darius Parham (Evan O’Connell kick), 6:38, 4th (24-21 W)
W— Kenny Sanderlin, 8-yard run (Braxton Sammons kick), 2:45, 4th (31-21 W)
First downs 18 22
Plays from scrimmage 53 62
Rushes-yards 35-177 39-110
Passing yards 102 208
Total yards 279 318
Cmp-Att-Int. 11-18-2 20-23-0
Fumbles-lost 0-0 2-2
Penalties-Yards 8-80 10-94
Punts-Ave. 4-37 2-34
RUSHING —Ready: Darius Parham 13-88, Brian Fitzsimmons 12-36 2TD, Tyrese Hudson 7-9, Andy Schulze 3-44; Wheelersburg: Derrick Lattimore 13-58, Eli Swords 10-56 TD, Eric Lattimore 4-22 TD, Jake Gregg 6-(-20), Kenny Sanderlin 2-7 TD, Blake Richardson 1-1, Case Dyer 2-(-6), Matthew Miller 1-(-8)
PASSING — Ready: Darius Parham 11-18-2-102 TD; Wheelersburg: Jake Gregg 18-21-0-139 TD, Matthew Miller 2-2-0-69
RECEIVING —Ready: Andy Schulze 3-75 TD, P.J. Daniels 4-32, Cole Matthews 1-4, Brian Fitzsimmons 2-2, Tyrese Hudson 1-(-11); Wheelersburg: Matthew Miller 9-81 TD, Case Dyer 3-85, Josh Clark 4-25, Caleb Arthur 1-19, Eli Swords 2-1, Eric Lattimore 1-(-3)
Reach Paul Boggs at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1926, by email at [email protected], or on Twitter @BoggsSports © 2020 Portsmouth Daily Times, all rights reserved