By CRAIG DUNN Sports Editor firstname.lastname@example.org JACKSON — Friday night, the Jackson Ironmen trailed in a football game for the first time all season.
They didn’t panic. They got angry… and you don’t want to be the team on the other side of the line of scrimmage when the Jackson Ironmen are an angry football team.
After spotting the visiting Logan Chieftains a 7-0 first-quarter lead — as the result of losing a fumble deep in their own territory — the Ironmen came back with a vengeance.
“That first quarter they really took it to us,” said Jackson coach Andy Hall, whose undefeated Ironmen (7-0 overall, 2-0 SEOAL) are unlikely to get much resistance the rest of the way in their quest to wrest the conference title from the defending champion Chieftains. “They dictated to us what they were doing and we struggled getting the running game going early. We made some adjustments scheme-wise in the second quarter.”
Those adjustments resulted in the Ironmen rushing for 195 yards in the second period alone and scoring three times to take command.
“In coaching, you want to give rah-rah pre-game speeches,” said Logan coach Billy Burke, “but the truth is, it doesn’t last very long once you start playing. You want to come up with all these schemes and block this way and that way — and you know what? That only lasts for so long, because eventually the other team starts picking it up and then everybody gets in their groove and settles in.
“Then it becomes a legal fistfight, and what man across from what man is going to dominate each other,” he added. “And that’s what happened tonight. We got physically dominated.”
The Chiefs (3-4, 1-1), who likely saw their post-season playoff aspirations float away along with the pouring rain, took advantage of a Jackson fumble to score their lone touchdown and take an early lead.
After taking over at the Jackson 16-yard line, quarterback Lane Little lost two yards on a keeper before flipping the ball to fellow junior Isaiah Smith on a jet sweep around left end.
Smith found the edge, and then found the end zone at the end of an 18-yard run, to put the Ironmen behind for the first time all season with 2:55 left in the opening stanza.
“We turned the ball over deep in our own territory, which really put us in a bind, and they scored,” Hall said. “They have a nice offense. Their line is big and strong and they opened up some nice holes. That’s a tough offense to play against.
“We told the kids all week that this was a combination of the three best teams we’d seen all year,” he added. “They had similarities to all of those teams. They scored first (and) that’s the first time we’ve been down all year — but we need for that to happen occasionally, to experience that and fight through.
“It was key that after we gave up a touchdown, we came back and got one of our own. I thought we really handled adversity well from there.”
The Ironmen then drove to the Logan 21 before giving the ball up on downs… and then, when the Jackson defense stopped the Chiefs, Logan’s Dean Jordan responded with a 61-yard bomb of a punt to pin the Ironmen at their own 10-yard line.
That’s when the Ironmen responded… and, oh, how they responded, scoring on five of the next six times they had the ball.
Senior running back Derek Rafferty broke the first play from scrimmage 89 yards before being caught at the Logan 1-yard line, but more than half of the play was negated due to an illegal block.
No problem. Senior running back Gabe Griffiths, who has been fighting injuries, took a handoff up the middle and went 56 yards for the game-tying touchdown with 8:54 left in the half.
“It was so great to have Gabe Griffiths back, a senior captain,” Hall said. “That was a huge play. That lifted our kids emotionally to see him go 56 yards. It gave us the spark that we needed to get going.”
A 29-yard Little-to-Smith pass play helped the Chiefs get into Jackson territory on the ensuing possession, but Rafferty made a diving interception of a Little pass — just the second interception suffered by the Chiefs this season — and the Ironmen capitalized.
A 42-yard run by junior quarterback Hunter Sexton highlighted a five-play, 54-yard scoring drive and was capped off by a 2-yard scoring run by Rafferty with 3:43 left in the half as the Ironmen took the lead for keeps.
Then, after the Chiefs failed to convert a fourth-and-1 at the Jackson 47 with just under a minute remaining, Rafferty rambled 31 yards on a misdirection play to set the Ironmen up in prime scoring territory.
Two plays later, Sexton found tight end Cole Bachtel over the middle with a 14-yard scoring pass with 37 seconds left in the half, and Jackson took a 21-7 advantage into the locker room.
“On defense we were a little overly-aggressive,” Burke said. “We saw some action in the backfield and we had some young men take off running: but you don’t take off running because (the) action is coming back to you — that’s why it’s called a counter (play). We erred sometimes and that’s what gave up some of those gaping holes on counter-action.”
Oftentimes the Chiefs had nine or ten defenders on the line of scrimmage in an effort to stop the Jackson running game. After a slow start, the Ironmen wound up running the ball for 429 of their 456 yards.
“We knew that was going to happen,” Hall said. “Right before half I thought was key that we threw the vertical routes to the tight ends because their corners were so far up in the box. Hunter made a great read and threw it to Cole Bachtel on the back side for a touchdown, which was a key to go up 21-7 at the half.
“As the game went on we saw they were loading the box and bringing their safety up,” he continued, “so we told Hunter at halftime that if he saw more numbers to one side to call your own play.”
That’s what Sexton did on the opening series of the second half.
Rafferty broke a 48-yard run to the Logan 14 and, two plays later, Sexton faked a reverse handoff and took the ball around the right edge for 12 yards and a TD that broke the Chiefs’ collective backs.
“He called his own number and four or five times in the second half he put us in the better play,” Hall said. “I was so proud of him for doing that tonight.”
Stanford-bound lineman Reagan Williams recovered a bad pitch by the Chieftains to halt a Logan drive into Jackson territory, and two series later a 20-yard run by Sexton set up a 3-yard scoring run by Raymond Potter that gave the Ironmen a 35-7 lead heading into the final stanza.
One last promising Chieftain drive died on downs at the Jackson 15 early in the final period. Freshman Blake McCoy later broke a 50-yard scoring run that gave the Ironmen a 35-point lead and activated the 30-point running-clock rule for the final 5:57 of the game.
“It was a great victory,” said Hall, whose Ironmen avenged a last-minute, 28-21 loss to the Chieftains last fall that eventually led to Logan earning its 26th SEOAL championship. “Those kids deserve the credit. They really came out tonight and fought through (adversity) and executed the game plan.”
While the Ironmen let their fourth shutout of the season get away from them early, it was “bend but don’t break,” he added. “You’re not going to get a shutout every week. They put us in some tough spots tonight.”
At least the Chiefs finally get to play at home the next couple of weeks, including a non-league game against Zanesville next Friday. Last night’s game at Jackson was the fifth road game in six weeks for the road-weary Chiefs.
The Chiefs now have to run the SEOAL table and hope that either Portsmouth or Gallipolis can upset the Ironmen to at least get a share of the league title — but a Portsmouth/Gallipolis all-star team wouldn’t have come close to the Ironmen over the final three quarters Friday night.
It’s back to the drawing board as the Purple & White prepare for their final three games.
“Somebody said football is a very simple game (and that) coaches make it too complicated,” Burke said. “Maybe I’ve done that. I’m going to take responsibility and say (that) I’ve done more than our young men can handle, because we forget the physical aspect.
“(Next week in practice) we’re going to get back to basics, we’re going to learn how to compete against another player, and we’re going to work on the fundamental, physical aspect of playing football,” he added. “We’re not dominating our opponents enough. We have three games to go (and) we’re going to bring the physical dimension that I feel we’ve lacked. Maybe we haven’t done a good-enough job as coaches of instilling that — but at the same time, our young men have to play, too.”