LOGAN — At the beginning, it had all the makings of a close, fierce battle. Two playoff teams going toe-to-toe in a Division IV regional semifinal.
Highland’s undersized front line kept Ironton off balance. Highland even had their opponents outgained in the first quarter.
Then, one dropped punt and the floodgates opened.
Ironton (10-2) poured it on to the tune of five touchdowns in only 14 offensive plays, sparking the Tigers to a 43-7 victory over the Scots.
“Ironton took everything we had going — took it away from us early in the game. They made us play their game instead of ours,” Highland head coach Chad Carpenter said.
Outsized in every aspect, Highland (9-3) knew they had to seize the momentum –– and keep it –– if they were to have a chance. On the first series of downs they went for it on fourth down. A quick handoff to Artie McAndrew resulted in a first down by inches. That little victory gave the Scots, and their fans, life. Even though the drive ended when Josh Gahm was intercepted by Tommy Waginger near midfield, Highland knew it could move the football.
The fired-up Highland defense refused to budge. They hit every tackle, holding Ironton to just one first down in the first quarter. The Tigers went with multiple ball carriers in their wing-T formation, and the Scots stopped them all.
Then came that punt.
As Ironton punted for the second time, the Highland returner saw the ball fall out of his hands at the 12. Ironton pounced on it, and any momentum the Scots had accumulated up to that point, had vanished.
Three plays later, Ironton star fullback Brian Warner was in the endzone for the game’s first touchdown. A Waginger two-point conversion made the score 8-0.
“We gave them an easy touchdown there. It set us back and took us out of everything we wanted to do,” Carpenter said.
A deflated Highland team looked the part. When they were forced to punt, Waginger took advantage of Ironton’s momentum on the very next play by scoring on a 66-yard run.
Highland needed a spark. Another gamble on fourth down, this time a pass to Matt Stooksbury, resulted in another first down by inches. But the drive ended when, once again, Ironton shut the Scots down. One punt, four plays and three first downs later, Warner was in the endzone again on another drive of over 50 yards. The Tigers led, 24-0.
Highland then had three minutes to put something on the board. Gahm started throwing the ball often and, although he found some success when he hit Stooksbury and Colby Randall, the team couldn’t complete passes when it mattered. Ironton had switched to a pass defense with five defensive backs, which disrupted any flow for the passing game. Following three straight incompletions, and three straight clock stoppages, Highland handed the ball back to Ironton on their own 30 with two minutes left.
Ironton, a grind-it-out running team, needed only half that time.
Waginger faked a dive on third and short and ran a bootleg around the befuddled defenders. 66 yards later, the score was 31-0.
Waginger would end the night as Ironton’s leading rusher with 130 yards –– 127 of them on his two touchdown carries.
Ironton had run 11 plays in the second quarter. They scored on four of them.
“We stopped them at first. I think they were setting us up for the option,” Carpenter said.
Any halftime adjustments made by Carpenter and his crew went out the window only a minute into the third quarter. Three Ironton plays. Two for first down. The third was another touchdown, this one by Tyler Hagar from 39 yards out.
Highland’s first good chance to score came late in the third, when they had the ball first and goal at the 5 yard line. Stooksbury took a screen pass to the 2. That was as close as they could get.
Then in the fourth, another chance. This time, Highland drove all the way to the 1. But Tres Wilks picked off Gahm’s pass and took it 99 yards the other way.
It was the longest play in Logan Chieftain Stadium history.
“Sophomores make mistakes. Plus our receivers weren’t running very consistent routes,” Carpenter said.
Stooksbury would end the night with 10 catches for 56 yards. Derrick Patrick had eight catches, also for 56 yards.
When Hayden Mailey, Highland’s leading rusher with 55 yards, finally scored for the Scots with 5:35 left, the game was all but decided.
Warner, usually Ironton’s leading rusher, had to settle for second with 91 yards on seven carries.
Ironton moves on to the regional final to take on Bishop Hartley, who downed Heath in the other semifinal.
As Carpenter left the field, he told his players to head straight for the locker room, so he could address them. But he admitted he didn’t know what to say to them.
“I’m really proud of these guys. We started out 0-2, and they really battled back. We had a really good season,” Carpenter said.