PORTSMOUTH — An instant classic occurred inside Trojan Coliseum on Saturday night.
It was the fourth all-time meeting between Ironton and Wheelersburg in the high school football postseason and unlike the previous three, this gridiron battle came down to the final possessions.
The 2021 Pirates (10-3) ended their three-game skid against the Fighting Tigers (11-2) with a 17-14 win at Portsmouth High School, despite having just 130 yards of total offense.
Numbers don’t always tell the story, though, and in some ways they do.
The ‘Burg offense made scoring drives when it needed to and their defense made unforgettable stops of the Ironton offense.
The Pirates forced five Fighting Tiger turnovers — three interceptions of quarterback Jon Wylie and a pair of recovered fumbles to stymie any Ironton momentum.
“Our speed was something that really bode well for us and created opportunities for us,” Wheelersburg coach Rob Woodward said, afterwards. “It helped aid in some of those turnovers. Defensively, our guys flying around and getting on turnovers was a major difference in the game.”
The first Ironton drive of the game was stopped when Wheelersburg recovered a fumble in Pirate territory, and capitalized with a 28-yard field goal by Braxton Sammons with 8:52 left in the first quarter.
Ironton’s two biggest plays from scrimmage of the game came within a minute of each other — a 53-yard run by Jaquez Keyes and a 19-yard run by Landon Wilson off a ‘Burg fumble.
With 6:20 left in the first quarter, the Fighting Tigers led 14-3 and it looked as if their offense was due for a big night.
But the Pirates had other plans.
Instead, for the final 42:20 of the game, Wheelersburg held the Fighting Tigers scoreless and kept their passing attack to just one completion over the course of the game.
Early in the second quarter, ‘Burg senior Carson Williams picked off a Wylie pass and returned it to the Ironton two-yard line, setting up a one-yard quarterback sneak by junior Eli Jones.
With 9:24 left in the first half, the Pirates trailed 14-10.
After both teams went scoreless for much of the second half, Pirates senior Casey Doerr intercepted a Wiley pass at their 48 and returned the ball to the Ironton 37 with less than five minutes to play.
A nine-play, 37-yard drive capped by a three-yard rushing touchdown by junior Ethan Glover gave Wheelersburg its’ first lead since the first quarter with 1:57 left at 17-14.
“(Wheelersburg assistant coach) Dusty Salyers did a great job did tonight with plays and setting things up to give our players the best situations to be successful. We talked about some of the things we did that worked in the first half,” Woodward said. “There were some plays where Eli Jones was able to make something out of nothing. What a great job he did falling forward and running forward on some of those plays.”
With one timeout and the length of the field to go, Ironton was forced to pass and again the ‘Burg defense capitalized.
Senior Eli Swords intercepted Wylie to clinch the win with 1:09 left, as Jones and company ended the game on their own terms — in victory formation.
Jones and Glover combined for 106 yards on the ground to lead the Pirates’ rushing attack.
Keyes ran for a game-high 132 yards and accounted for the game’s longest play from scrimmage.
Wheelersburg earned wins over Ironton in the postseason in 2014 and 2015 with 38-7 wins, making Saturday’s battle their third straight win in their postseason series.
Ironton won the first meeting between the two in the playoffs with a 41-8 win in 1995 at Portsmouth.
It was the first Pirates’ win over the Fighting Tigers since the two opened the 2018 season at Ed Miller Stadium on Aug. 24, 2018, ending their two-game skid to their Lawrence County neighbors.
For Woodward, he said this win ranks rather highly during his tenure as the ‘Burg head coach.
“Right now in this moment, with these kids and the adversity we’ve faced, it’s right up there in the top. Everybody’s talked about it all week, but nobody outside of our coaching staff and kids know the actual growth that’s taken place,” Woodward said. “Mentally and physically, working to be better at the game of football. I think you saw a great football team out there tonight that again didn’t flinch when they were down.”
The Pirates advance to the Division V, Region 19 championship — where they’ll meet a team they’ve not faced in program history, which dates back to 1930.
A neutral site of nearby Waverly will host the meeting between No. 5-seed Wheelersburg and No. 2-seed Harvest Prep.
The Warriors defeated Columbus Academy 41-0 in their own regional semifinal on Saturday.
“We’re going to go back and evaluate them on film. If they won easy tonight, we were in a battle. I like the fact that our kids have been battle-tested and understand how to overcome adversity,” Woodward said. “It’s been a fun week and practice and we’re going to continue to have fun with this game that we love.”
* * *
Wheelersburg 3 7 0 7— 17
Ironton 14 0 0 0 —14
W — Braxton Sammons, 28-yard field goal, 8:52, 1st (3-0 W)
I — Jaquez Keyes, 53-yard run (Matt Sheridan kick), 7:22, 1st (7-3 I)
I — Landon Wilson, 19-yard run (Matt Sheridan kick), 6:20, 1st (14-3 I)
W — Eli Jones, 1-yard run (Braxton Sammons kick), 9:24, 2nd (14-10 I)
W — Ethan Glover, 3-yard run (Braxton Sammons kick), 1:57, 4th (17-14 W)
First downs 10 12
Scrimmage plays 51 52
Rushes-yards 40-98 41-219
Passing yards 32 16
Total yards 130 235
Cmp-Att-Int. 6-11-0 1-11-3
Fumbles-lost 1-1 4-2
Penalties-yards 4-35 4-21
Punts-Ave. 4-41.75 2-27
RUSHING —Wheelersburg: Eli Jones 20-63 TD, Ethan Glover 16-43 TD, Derrick Lattimore 2-6, Creed Warren 2-(-14); Ironton: Jaquez Keyes 19-132 TD, Landon Wilson 8-49 TD, Amar Howard 4-48, Jon Wylie 8-12, Team 2-(-22)
PASSING —Wheelersburg: Eli Jones 5-10-0-26, Hunter Thomas 1-1-0-6; Ironton: Jon Wylie 1-10-3-16, Cole Freeman 0-1-0-0
RECEIVING—Wheelersburg: Josh Clark 4-18, Carson Williams 1-8, Eli Jones 1-6; Ironton: Landon Wilson 1-16
Reach Jacob Smith at (740) 370-0713 ext. 1930, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @JacobSmithPDT © 2021 Portsmouth Daily Times, all rights reserved