MINFORD — For Eli Jones, it marked a comeback —and a coming out party —all in one single solitary swoop of a Friday night.
That’s because the junior Jones, the Wheelersburg quarterback who missed the first four games due to a thumb injury, saw his second significant snaps of the season against the host Minford Falcons —and more than made up for lost time.
The running threat signal-caller had a hat trick of rushing touchdowns —in the game’s early (13 yards), middle (23 yards) and very late (10 yards) stages —and engineered the Pirates’ monster fourth-quarter scoring drive, as Wheelersburg prevailed 24-20 over Minford in the Southern Ohio Conference Division II opener inside the Falcons’ Nest.
You read correct, as Friday night was all about keeping up with Wheelersburg’s Jones.
In the Pirates’ one-point (21-20) yet heartbreaking overtime loss at Jackson, Jones carried nine times for 20 yards and threw two incomplete passes —as he had been the junior varsity quarterback a season ago, and was the likely varsity starter entering this year.
But he injured his thumb in preseason play, and missed most of the first half of the regular campaign as a result.
However, when healthy —his legs and feet are actually, at least already, more impactful than his arm and hand, as that was never more obvious than in Friday’s fourth quarter.
After the Pirates forced the Falcons’ second punt, and after a 15-yard personal-foul penalty negated a nice 46-yard return by Eric Lattimore to the Minford 28-yard-line, Wheelersburg was staring at an 86-yard drive in order to take the lead —trailing 20-17 with six minutes and 21 seconds remaining.
But with Mr. Jones carrying the bulk, and his offensive line leading the way, the Pirates put together an impressive 17-play and seven first-down drive — which consumed exactly six minutes off the clock.
He had gains of eight, 11, seven, seven, nine, 10, five and finally 10 yards on 2nd-and-goal — running up the middle most times, including on the go-ahead run with a mere 21 seconds to play.
“We’ve been talking about finishing. We’ve been growing up, and our guys really trusted in one another there on that last drive. Really focused in, did a better job of communicating,” said Wheelersburg coach Rob Woodward. “We just grinded it out, which is what we needed.”
Braxton Sammons made his third and final of three extra-point kicks, putting the Pirates ahead 24-20 —and forcing the Falcons to respond with a touchdown.
Jones, who scored on a late first-quarter run from 13 yards and an early third-quarter burst of 23 yards, carried 17 times for 113 yards —and clearly was the star of the night.
“Eli had an injury to his hand early on, that as a quarterback is really going to limit his ability there. But the biggest thing with him is to just come back and play with confidence. We knew he had good foot speed and it was something we could utilize, but it had to be a situation where he was confident to be able to go back in. We’ve been touching on that in practice here and there throughout the whole year. He ran the ball well in the first half, but nothing like he did in that second half,” said Woodward. “He took it to another level, another notch, and that’s what we have to have out of him. We want teams to have to really recognize that Eli Jones is another guy they are going to key on. And compliments to Carson Williams moving to tight end and our entire offensive line for grinding out this game and playing just a good physical football game throughout.”
With Wheelersburg’s run-oriented attack, Ethan Glover got the majority of the touches in the opening half of the season —as he too tied Jones with 17 attempts against Minford, and churned out 89 yards.
But Woodward said clubs’ keying in on Glover is picking up, and Jones just gives them another important ball-carrying option.
The Pirates produced an even 300 rushing yards on 51 attempts, as they amassed 22 first downs and ran 60 plays from scrimmage.
Jones also completed 2-of-4 passes, but the Falcons were simply unable to stop him in the second half —as he toted 12 times for 104 yards and two touchdowns.
With the win, Wheelersburg evened its record to 3-3 — and snapped a rare two-game losing streak.
The Pirates faced the Falcons for the fourth time in 23 months, as the latest Wheelersburg win in the series increased the overwhelming lopsided Pirate advantage to 61-6 all-time.
The Falcons’ lone victories came in 1964, 1985, twice in 2000 (regular season and state playoffs), 2003, and most recently in 2009.
Two years ago, Minford fell 21-20 in overtime inside the same Falcons’ Nest — as the Falcons opted for but failed to convert the two-point conversion attempt in overtime.
On their final series this time, and after Sammons’ kickoff sailed through the end zone for a touchback, the Falcons got a 15-yard pass completion from Devin Parker to Ethan Conally —but Parker’s next pass on the final play sailed out of bounds.
Minford, which fell to 3-2 and which won 16-14 at East Clinton 10 days ago on a Myles Montgomery 32-yard field goal with six seconds remaining, couldn’t pull off a second dramatic victory in as many weeks.
This despite the Big Red playing what head coach Jesse Ruby deemed was its best game of the season.
The lead changed hands four times —with the Falcons leading for the final 50 seconds of the second quarter, the first 2:37 of the third period, and all but the final 21 seconds from the 1:14 mark of the third frame on.
Not bad for a unit in which some observers projected as overwhelming underdogs against the Pirates, and even Internet message board posts pegging the two words “running clock”.
“Our kids came out and played with fire and intensity, read their keys well, played assignment football, and really, by far, we played our best game of the year. I love my kids and it’s just a heartbreaker for them. They played great and played well enough to win,” said Ruby. “We limited penalties, we didn’t the ball over, we made plays when we needed to, and for the most part we played pretty well in the kicking game. We gave it everything we had, it’s just unfortunate that at some point, a team has to lose on the scoreboard. I credit my kids and my coaching staff for taking the things that they were taught and going out and executing on the field and playing a good Wheelersburg team down to the wire. I think our kids were very motivated due to some of the things that they heard, about how people were doubting their chances. Just seeing them come out and play the way they did, I couldn’t be more proud of them.”
For the Falcons, it simply was a matter of execution.
With 10-and-a-half minutes remaining, and after Sammons punted into the end zone on his only attempt, Minford moved 28 yards in five plays to its own 48 —but a bad snap over Parker’s head resulted in him falling on the fumble for a 13-yard loss.
Jeffrey Pica then punted from the 35 to the Pirates’ 26, resulting in Lattimore’s wiped out return —but also jump-starting Jones behind the wheel of Wheelersburg’s final drive.
Ruby talked about a tale of two possessions — as Wheelersburg converted a pair of 3rd-and-4s, a 3rd-and-7, and finally a 3rd-and-inches to set up 1st-and-goal.
“We were trying to run more time off the clock, but we had that bad snap or mishandled snap. Just one of those situations that happens in a game, where it put us in a situation where we had to punt. Then they were just getting good angles on us, and running some counter trey action and getting four or five yards a pop. We would get them in some situations where we felt like we had them stopped and forced fourth down, but they were able to convert. So hats off to them for being able to execute at that time of the game,” he said. “They called some things differently than they have some other games with him (Jones) at quarterback, but it’s still the same concepts which we prepared for. Give credit to their kids for not giving up and our kids for just battling.”
The first three-and-a-half stanzas saw a see-saw affair —as Minford crafted its own hefty scoring drive, a 13-play, 85-yard and five first-down march, which ended with Parker’s second short TD run.
Montgomery made the extra-point kick for the Falcons’ 20-17 lead with 74 seconds left in the third, as Parker rushed eight times for 31 yards — and completed half (11) of his 23 passes for 126.
Jackson Shoemaker’s 21-yard reception on the tight end dump pass pushed the Falcons from their own 44 to the Wheelersburg 35 —as a 41-yard completion from Parker to Trenton Zimmerman made good to set up their second score.
Pica’s five-yard run ended a nine-play, 80-yard, four first down and four-minute scoring drive —as Minford took its first lead at 13-7 with 50 seconds showing in the half.
The Pirates’ previous possessions resulted in their lost fumble at their own 13 and Sammons missing a 28-yard field goal —sandwiched around Parker’s 2-yard TD sneak and Montgomery’s first extra point, which tied it 7-7 only a minute and two seconds into the second quarter.
But Sammons exacted a measure of revenge, as Wheelersburg went a fast 54 yards in only seven plays and 46 seconds —and Sammons drilled a 37-yard field goal as the first half expired, trimming the Pirate deficit to 13-10.
Jones — who directed a 10-play, 56-yard, four first-down and five-minute drive for the Pirates’ first score and took advantage of the Falcons’ only turnover —opened the second half by spearheading a seven-play, 70-yard, four first-down and two-and-a-half minute march, which put the Orange and Black back in front 17-13 with Sammons’ second extra point.
Woodward said those 10 points in less than three-and-a-half minutes meant much more later on.
“Those last 46 (first half) seconds could have been a time to lay down, but we didn’t. We had a drive like that tonight because our guys have been buying in and practicing and getting so much better at what we can and are able to do. That field goal right before the half was huge momentum, and it leads us to come out the second half and drive down and score again to take the lead,” he said. “Super proud of our kids.”
From there, the lead changed hands twice more —with Wheelersburg winning in the final 21 seconds.
The Falcon workhorse Pica powered for 113 yards on 22 carries, as Conally caught six passes for 43 yards for Minford.
Both squads got gassed in the fourth quarter Woodward said, but the Pirates played for the Falcons to keep up with Jones —which they ultimately didn’t.
“We’ve talked all year about having a short-term memory, and you can’t let one mistake lead to two, and you have to be able to respond and be able to finish,” he said. “We just needed to put the trust in one another and finish off a game. Just super proud of our players. It’s a big win tonight that we really needed.”
* * *
Wheelersburg 7 3 7 7 —24
Minford 0 13 7 0 —20
W — Eli Jones, 13-yard run (Braxton Sammons kick), 2:34, 1st (7-0 W)
M — Devin Parker, 2-yard run (Myles Montgomery kick), 10:58, 2nd (7-7 tie)
M — Jeffrey Pica, 5-yard run (kick blocked), :50, 2nd (13-7 M)
W— Braxton Sammons, 37-yard field goal, :00, 2nd (13-10 M)
W — Eli Jones, 23-yard run (Braxton Sammons kick), 9:23, 3rd (17-13 W)
M — Devin Parker, 1-yard run (Myles Montgomery kick), 1:14, 3rd (20-17 M)
W — Eli Jones, 10-yard run (Braxton Sammons kick), :21, 4th (24-20 W)
First downs 22 13
Scrimmage plays 60 55
Rushes-yards 51-300 32-131
Passing yards 21 126
Total yards 321 257
Cmp-Att-Int. 4-9-0 11-23-0
Fumbles-lost 2-1 3-1
Penalties-yards 4-26 3-10
Punts-Ave 1-43 2-46
RUSHING —Wheelersburg: Eli Jones 17-117 3TD, Ethan Glover 17-89, Eli Swords 8-37, Eric Lattimore 5-39, Creed Warren 2-15, Jake Darling 1-8, Team 1-(-5); Minford: Jeffrey Pica 22-113 TD, Devin Parker 8-31 2TD, Team 2-(-13)
PASSING — Wheelersburg: Bryson Stamper 2-5-0-14, Eli Jones 2-4-0-7; Minford: Devin Parker 11-23-0-126
RECEIVING— Wheelersburg: Eric Lattimore 3-14, Creed Warren 1-7; Minford: Ethan Conally 6-43, Trenton Zimmerman 2-53, Jackson Shoemaker 2-24, Colin Parker 1-6
Reach Paul Boggs at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1926, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @paulboggssports © 2021 Portsmouth Daily Times, all rights reserved