PORTSMOUTH — Turnovers, no doubt, were Wheelersburg’s turnabout — and fair play — for Saturday night against Ironton.
As a result, it’s the now 10-3 Pirates pressing on to the Division V Region 19 football championship bout —and the back-to-back state runner-up and Region 19 top-seeded Fighting Tigers (11-2) aren’t returning to Northeastern Ohio in early December.
In the season opener between the U.S. Route 52 archrivals, and what seems like so long ago in August, the Fighting Tigers turned the Pirates over four second-quarter times —and capitalized by turning those turnovers into four second-quarter touchdowns.
The end result was a 40-6 lopsided score in favor of Ironton —as the Fighting Tigers put the Ohio High School Athletic Association’s running-clock on the Pirates for the game’s final three minutes and 11 seconds.
Well, talk about turning your tables —more like dramatically flipping them hard on their ends.
That’s because the Pirates, prevailing 17-14 inside Portsmouth’s Trojan Coliseum thanks to pitching a shutout of Ironton over the final three-and-a-half quarters, forced five —yes count ‘em five —Fighting Tigers turnovers, and two turnovers on downs with one of them being a badly-botched field-goal attempt.
Ironton also punted twice, and only scored two touchdowns a mere minute and two seconds apart midway through the first quarter —on a 53-yard dash by Jaquez Keyes and on a 19-yard run by Landon Wilson, with Wheelersburg committing its only turnover on the play prior.
At that juncture, it was a 14-3 Ironton advantage with a full 42 minutes and 20 seconds remaining.
But aside from that, it was all defense, defense, defense for the Pirates —and turning the tide in turning Ironton over.
All 17 Pirates’ points were the direct result of Fighting Tigers giveaways —as they scored on all three ensuing possessions.
There was Braxton Sammons’s 28-yard first-quarter field goal, Eli Jones’ quarterback sneak after Carson Williams’ early second-quarter interception and return of 22 yards to the 2-yard-line, and finally after Casey Doerr intercepted Ironton quarterback Jon Wylie — and returned the pigskin from the Pirate 48 to the Fighting Tigers’ 37.
That INT was with six minutes and six seconds remaining, as Wheelersburg —with a well-engineered Jones drive of nine plays and four minutes and nine seconds which included a throwback pass and a “wildcat” call — went ahead at 17-14 with an Ethan Glover dive from three yards out.
Finally, 40 seconds later, Pirate senior Eli Swords sealed the win —with a nice step-in front of a Wylie pass and return into Fighting Tigers’ territory.
Truth be told, turnovers combined with subsequent field position are ultimate difference-makers for football games —no matter the talent, skill levels, or differential between the two.
This time, and in the more meaningful meeting, it was Wheelersburg benefiting from the Fighting Tigers’ miscues.
“Defensively, our speed was something that really bode well for us, and created a lot of opportunities for us, and I gotta believe aided in some of those turnovers,” said Wheelersburg coach Rob Woodward. “We were flying around to the football and getting on those turnovers when the ball is on the ground or in the air. When we punted, we gave them a lot of field to have to work. We made them have to earn some of those yards that they got.”
When the Fighting Tigers did drive seven first-quarter plays and 20 yards, the Pirates stuffed Keyes in the backfield for a turnover on downs.
Ironton, in the second stanza, then moved 10 plays between the 20s —attempting a 41-yard field goal at the four-minute mark.
But a bad and bobbled snap blew up the attempt at the outset, and all Cole Freeman could do was throw a Garo Yepremian-like desperation shot put pass.
Finally, in the third quarter, the Fighting Tigers marched nine plays from their own 13 to the Pirate 24 —but Keyes fumbled, and Wheelersburg’s Drew Holsinger had the pouncing presence of mind right there and then.
Ironton coach Trevon Pendleton talked about his Fighting Tigers losing those battles.
“It’s huge. Field position and turnovers were crucial. Honestly, ultimately, plays calls and decisions fall back on me,” said the coach. “Gotta put the kids in better spots to execute and give them a chance. Wheelersburg was opportunistic, and they capitalized on those turnovers. Schematically and personnel-wise, I don’t think they were much different. Bottom line was we we turned the ball over, and they capitalized. Plain and simple.”
Wylie completed just one of his 10 passes — a 16-yarder on Ironton’s fourth-to-final play to Wilson.
Keyes carried 19 times for 132 yards to outgain the entire Pirate offense (130 total yards) by himself —but he only had half-a-dozen rushes and 24 yards in the entire second half.
And, this was all without Wheelersburg senior Josh Boggs —as the all-Southeast District first-team defensive end was out injured.
New faces taming Tigers
The Pirates played the opener without Jones and Glover, as Jones was out injured and Williams was the primary ballcarrier —before being moved to tight end midway through the season, and when Jones returned.
In addition to both scoring on short runs for the two touchdowns, they combined for 36 of the Pirates’ 40 rushes —and 106 of their 98 rushing yards.
Jones carried 20 times for 63 yards, while Glover gained 43 on 16 totes.
Jones threw 10 times and completed half for 26 yards —with Josh Clark, who was injured in the opener, coming back to catch four passes for 18.
Jones also caught a throwback pass for six yards from Hunter Thomas on that game-winning drive —which was actually the possession’s opening play.
He then kept the ball for three yards apiece on three consecutive snaps, before a five-yard gainer —and finally an 11-yard run from the 14 to just inside the 3.
Before Glover got the call on the TD plunge, he had a one-yard gain to the 16 to set up 4th-and-1 —of which he lined up in the “wildcat” formation with an overload on the right side.
Woodward credited offensive coordinator Dusty Salyers “for doing a great job of calling the football game tonight.”
In fact, Wheelersburg became just the second team to score at least 17 points on Ironton all season —with Cincinnati Moeller, in its only other loss, totaling 25.
And, the Pirates played primarily without Derrick Lattimore and Eric Lattimore — as Derrick carried just twice for six yards, while Eric saw few snaps after being injured at Ridgewood.
“Dusty (Salyers) set up situations that put our kids in the best positions to be successful. That last drive, we kept them on their toes, and there were a couple of plays where Eli Jones made something out of nothing. But for the most part, Eli did a great job of running forward and falling forward on those plays,” said Woodward. “They were making us earn the yards that we got as well. It was taking three or four plays to get first downs. Just great execution by ALL of our kids — from those up front to Eli and Ethan running the ball.”
Just for kicks
And, don’t forget about kicking and punting extraordinaire Braxton Sammons, who made a 28-yard field goal on the Pirates’ opening possession —plus two extra points.
The three-time all-Southeast District first-team selection also pinned the Fighting Tigers back with a pair of punts —a 51-yarder in the first quarter which rolled dead at the 12, and a 37-yarder in the third frame which stopped at the 13.
He also had two touchbacks on kickoffs, as his kickoff following his field goal sailed to the 7-yard-line.
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