WEST LAFAYETTE — A year ago, Wheelersburg’s 13-10 defensive epic — but defeat — at Ridgewood left Rob Woodward gritting his teeth.
After Saturday night, though, Woodward — Wheelersburg’s 14-year and highly-successful head football coach — was simply all smiles this time around.
That’s because the visiting and fifth-seeded Pirates, in finally catching some defensive breaks —and in breaking Ridgewood’s backs with Eli Jones’ two touchdown passes — prevailed against the fourth-seeded Generals on Saturday night, capturing a hard-fought 24-20 Division V Region 19 quarterfinal tilt at a rocking Ridgewood High School.
Alas, indeed the third time in a row against the Generals was Wheelersburg’s charm.
The Pirates, for the past two seasons, played against the Generals as third-seeded but regional semifinal underdogs —including at Ridgewood last season, in which Wheelersburg lost a true defensive struggle.
But, in their return to Ridgewood, the Pirates played perfect football when they absolutely had to —and were well off at most other points throughout.
In fact, they trailed 20-10 with 16 minutes and 57 seconds remaining —but first defensively had their way with Ridgewood in the entire fourth quarter, and twice scored in a span of two minutes and 25 seconds.
In a contest which featured four lead changes, and the halftime score of last year’s 13-10 final, the Pirates pretty much owned the final 14 minutes and five seconds — scoring twice from at least 39 yards to take their 24-20 advantage, and never relinquishing that lead again in the game’s final 11:40.
The outcome — of course — brought bright smiles to Woodward, the Pirates’ players faces, and their passionate fan base which made the three-and-a-half hour trip to deep in the heart of Coshocton County.
Speaking of heart, the now 9-3 Pirates displayed plenty of it —while breaking that of the 10-2 Generals.
Wheelersburg also now owns a 5-2 advantage in the all-time series with Ridgewood —with all seven meetings coming in the Division V state playoffs.
Woodward said his Pirates “never flinched” amid the pressure of playoff football.
On the road, amid the cold, and in just their second natural-grass game of the entire 2021 campaign.
The other — an identical 24-20 final for the victory at Minford, which kick-started the Pirates’ now seven-game winning streak.
“Playoff football is all about breaks, taking advantage of opportunities when they come, and having players step up and make big plays,” said the coach. “You have to have some things go your way. Our kids just battled and worked hard and got there. We told them that playoff football, you’re going to have to continue to battle. It takes four quarters to be able to play and win, and our kids battled for all four quarters.”
Especially for that fourth salvo —which actually started with 4:54 to play in the third.
The Generals, with the second of two Kauelen Smith short touchdown runs, took a 20-10 lead only three seconds earlier —their largest of the game and without standout senior quarterback Gabe Tingle taking the snaps.
More on Tingle in a while.
Instead, it was the “other” starting signal-caller —the Wheelersburg junior Jones — jump-starting the Pirates’ rally.
As part of a six-play, 89-yard and quick two-minute and 49-second scoring drive, the primary running threat Jones completed three passes —to tight end Carson Williams for 34 yards to the Pirates’ 48-yard-line, to Creed Warren for the next nine yards to the Generals’ 43, and finally from 40 yards out on a go-route to Josh Clark.
But Clark’s catch-and-run resulted in a Pirate touchdown — and was actually the second scoring connection of at least that far from that particular combination.
With Braxton Sammons’ extra-point kick, Wheelersburg was down just 20-17 with two minutes and five tics left in in the third.
Sammons and the Pirates then played field position on the Generals, as Ridgewood was inside its own 20 to start its next series —which resulted in a three-and-out, and a punt on the fourth quarter’s opening snap.
With Wheelersburg in business at the Generals’ 39, Ethan Glover took an inside handoff on the second play of the series — and broke free and busted loose for a gallop all the way to the end zone.
That scoring series took just 14 seconds, and Wheelersburg —with Sammons’ extra-point kick — was in front 24-20.
While these run-oriented Pirates book-ended ball control first-half drives — with Sammons making a 25-yard first-quarter field goal for a 3-0 lead — Jones and Glover garnered the bulk of the carries, as Wheelersburg rushed 35 times for 163 yards.
Glover gained 88 yards on a game-high 16 totes, while Jones carried five times in each half for 10 total —and 34 yards on the ground.
However, he completed all but three of his 13 pass attempts for 145 yards —as one was an intentional spike to stop the second-quarter clock on that final first-half series.
Jones and Clark hooked up from 46 yards midway through the second stanza — which was also a go-route by Clark, and which Jones dropped back and nicely lofted the ball up to where only Clark could make a play and then some.
“Eli Jones, what a job he did tonight both throwing the football and running the football. He has been coming on all year, and just keeps getting better. As we’re understanding what he is able to do, and he is recognizing what we’re trying to do and all that coming together…” said Woodward. “He takes advantage of his opportunities. And Josh Clark, on both touchdown passes, makes a huge catch on Eli’s throws where only our players can catch it. It’s what you talk about and try to rep in practice. It’s the product of the preparation that these guys have done, both mentally and physically, to get themselves ready to go.”
Sammons’ first extra point made it 10-7 in favor of the Pirates —erasing Ridgewood’s 7-3 second-quarter cushion, which lasted a mere 58 seconds.
Despite being outgained by the Generals by 69 total yards (377-308), and notching nine fewer first downs (20-11), it was the explosive plays which Jones, Clark, Glover and the Pirates’ offensive line combined for.
“The run game with Ethan Glover, Eli Jones, Jake Darling (35 yards) and our offensive line, it’s just the power that we have with some of our guys,” said Woodward. “While we stalled at times, we want to keep working to move the chains and create some holes and those running lanes.”
Speaking of the chains, with Wheelersburg leading 24-20 but with Ridgewood driving 10 plays and 42 yards to its own 47, a hobbled Tingle —apparently playing on a serious ankle injury suffered on the Generals’ first offensive play of the second half —completed a 13-yard fourth-down pass to Zander Stroup.
But the measurement marked the Generals just shy of the necessary first-down yardage, giving the ball back to Wheelersburg with only 40 seconds to go.
With that, Jones took a knee —while Tingle’s injured ankle became an entire second-half talking points memo.
As the reigning East District Division V Offensive Co-Player of the Year scrambled and escaped Pirate pressure for an 18-yard gain, he was tackled at the ankles —and badly injured one.
He limped off after the play, played in spot duty from there, and finished his final high school game with 72 rushing yards on 10 carries —while completing 5-of-9 passes for 60.
Between Tingle’s unfortunate injury, and the game-clinching fourth-down measurement, perhaps the Pirates’ best defensive break was recovering a lost fumble right at Ridgewood’s red zone.
The Generals, after Glover’s touchdown, marched nine plays and for six minutes and five seconds —moving from their own 35 to the Pirates’ 23.
But Kigen Millender, whose 75-yard sprint set up the Generals’ second TD, fumbled across the 20 to the 19 — and quickly Glover recovered it.
That was with five-and-a-half minutes remaining — as the Pirates burned three full minutes off the clock from there, before Sammons sent a 45-yard punt down to the Ridgewood 5-yard-line.
And, that was Sammons’ shortest punt of his four attempts.
His first-half pair flipped the field for 53 and 52 yards — before his massive 70-yard boomer and roller resulted in a touchback.
Speaking of touchbacks, Sammons’ kickoffs resulted in those or were quite close —as his three first-half boots sailed inside the Generals’ 10-yard-line.
His bookend punts rolled dead inside the five, while his second and third tries resulted in touchbacks.
“Braxton Sammons did a great job punting the ball when we didn’t finish drives, and his two touchbacks were just so close to being pinned in there,” said Woodward.
Josiah Cahill, Tingle’s replacement under center, rushed nine times for 30 yards —and completed 3-of-9 passes for another 33.
Dalton Patterson, who scored the Generals’ opening touchdown on a 13-yard end-around run to make it 7-3, caught four passes for 30 yards.
That was the initial of the four lead changes, but the last lasted for the final 11:40 —in which Wheelersburg got both breaks and made plays.
In the end, it’s all smiles for Woodward and the Pirates.
“Just a great, gritty game by our guys,” he said.
Now, Wheelersburg will need that same grit and effort against 11-1 and archrival Ironton —in Saturday night’s Region 19 semifinal inside Portsmouth High School’s Trojan Coliseum.
The Fighting Tigers, Region 19’s top seed, topped ninth-seeded and visiting Portsmouth 17-6 on Saturday night in another Region 19 quarterfinal.
Ironton also owns a 40-6 season-opening victory over the Pirates —in which Wheelersburg, without the injured Jones, was guilty of four second-quarter turnovers which led directly to four Fighting Tigers’ touchdowns.
Woodward said his Pirates have developed and grown into a completely different — and successful — squad since then.
“We’re a different football team and they (Fighting Tigers) are different football team. We’re ready to move on and play another playoff game,” he said. “We’re locked and loaded, we’re motivated and we’ll be ready to go.”
* * *
Wheelersburg 3 7 7 7— 24
Ridgewood 0 13 7 —20
W — Braxton Sammons, 25-yard field goal, 4:08, 1st (3-0 W)
R — Dalton Patterson, 13-yard run (Andy Troyer kick), 7:43, 2nd (7-3 R)
W — Josh Clark, 46-yard pass from Eli Jones (Braxton Sammons kick), 6:45, 2nd (10-7 W)
R— Kauelen Smith, 3-yard run (kick blocked), 2:30, 2nd (13-10 R)
R — Kauelen Smith, 3-yard run (Andy Troyer kick), 4:57, 3rd (20-10 R)
W — Josh Clark, 40-yard pass from Eli Jones (Braxton Sammons kick), 2:05, 3rd (20-17 R)
W — Ethan Glover, 39-yard run (Braxton Sammons kick), 11:40, 4th (24-20 W)
First downs 11 20
Scrimmage plays 48 59
Rushes-yards 35-163 41-284
Passing yards 145 93
Total yards 308 377
Cmp-Att-Int. 10-13-0 8-18-0
Fumbles-lost 1-0 4-2
Penalties-yards 3-25 7-75
Punts-Ave. 4-54.75 4-32.5
RUSHING —Wheelersburg: Ethan Glover 16-88 TD, Eli Jones 10-34, Jake Darling 2-35, Eric Lattimore 5-14, Derrick Lattimore 1-(-1), Creed Warren 1-(-7); Ridgewood: Gabe Tingle 10-72, Josiah Cahill 9-30, Kigen Millender 7-97, Xavier Lamneck 7-48, Kauelen Smith 4-23 2TD, Dalton Patterson 1-13 TD, Alex Stroup 1-5, Quincy Hains 1-1, Team 1-(-5)
PASSING —Wheelersburg: Eli Jones 10-13-0-145 2TD; Ridgewood: Gabe Tingle 5-9-0-60, Josiah Cahill 3-9-0-33
RECEIVING—Wheelersburg: Josh Clark 3-89 2TD, Carson Williams 2-41, Creed Warren 4-20, Ethan Glover 1-(-5); Ridgewood: Dalton Patterson 4-30, Zander Stroup 3-48, Chase Booth 1-15
Reach Paul Boggs at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1926, by email at [email protected], or on Twitter @paulboggssports © 2021 Portsmouth Daily Times, all rights reserved