The Division III AP No. 7-ranked Kenston gridders were behind the sticks at their own 11-yard line and flirting with danger against unbeaten Western Reserve Conference foe Mayfield on Friday night in Bainbridge.
After a would-be touchdown toss was dropped and then an awry snap was fumbled for a loss, the host Bombers faced third-and-15 with 1:59 to go in the first half and the score still dead at 0-0.
Senior quarterback Jon Tomcufcik aired out a long ball that senior receiver Jay Middleton made a diving catch on at the 45-yard line right in front of his own sidelined, which reacted with elation, but the official called Middleton out of bounds and threw a flag for offensive pass interference – both calls to the dismay of the Bomber faithful.
After a punt, the visiting Division II AP No. 7-ranked Wildcats, who were seeking an outright league banner and their first 10-0 season since 1984, took over on a 48-yard field – the best starting position they’d get all night.
Mayfield junior quarterback Michael Huss dialed up senior receiver Joey Isabella on a 36-yard toss to set up the Wildcats at the 5-yard line for their first trip to the red zone, and three plays later 6-foot-2, 205-pound senior running back Joe Suchy pounded in a 1-yard touchdown to provide Mayfield a 7-0 lead with 23 seconds left in the half.
That was the first halftime deficit the one-loss Bombers faced since a week-six battle against Mayfield in 2017.
Surrendering points right before the end of a half always hurts, but, in an eventual 24-21 loss for Kenston, which had a share of the WRC banner and a home playoff game on the line, those first-half points had a bigger impact than most.
“There’s no doubt Mayfield is one of the best teams we’ve played here,” head coach Jeff Grubich said about his eight-year tenure at Kenston, which includes gridiron contests against Division I Medina in 2016, Division I Solon in 2013 and 2014, Division III state champion St. Vincent-St. Mary in 2013 and Division II state semifinalist Aurora in 2012.
Other than going against SVSM’s eventual 15-0 squad in the first round of the 2013 playoffs, Grubich’s Bombers haven’t played any unbeatens this late in the season.
“It is very difficult to go 10-0, and that team just pulled it off,” he said, tipping his cap to the Wildcats. “They play the same schedule as us, and that’s the definition of a great football team over there. They had a great game plan going in, and they just out-executed us at the end of the day.
“But there’s no doubt my guys had a great week of practice; they worked hard. You know, I don’t question their effort or anything whatsoever. We ran into a great football team that wanted to accomplish something that is difficult to accomplish, and they made a few more plays than us.”
Defensively, Kenston came to ball.
Senior lineman Tim Matty put an 11-yard sack on Huss to take the Wildcats out of field-goal range on their first drive. It was Matty’s 11th sack of the season.
Junior lineman Anthony Valocchi then put the pressure on Huss for a third-down incompletion on the Wildcats’ second drive, and, in the second quarter, senior linebacker Frank DiMarco put a third-down sack on Huss in Bomber territory.
Offensively, Kenston’s best opportunity in the first half had the Bombers keeping their offense on the field for a fourth-and-4 play in the red zone, but a false start backed them up 5 yards, and an ensuing 41-yard field-goal attempt by senior Blake Torres was partially blocked.
“We thought it would be a defensive battle going in,” Grubich said. “As well as our defense has been playing, and their defense, they’ve always got a real good defense. So, we expected a real tight game. We figured it would come down to the fourth quarter and whoever had the ball last, and that’s basically what happened.”
Thanks to a pass break-up by Middleton, Kenston forced a Mayfield punt on the Wildcats’ opening drive of the third quarter.
Then the Bombers went 80 yards on 10 plays, which featured a 20-yard stiff-arming jet sweep by senior slotback Tyler Mintz and a tackle-breaking 4-yard touchdown run by senior running back Jack Porter to tie the game, 7-7, with 6:03 left in the frame.
After Mayfield’s defense clogged up the middle against Kenston’s huddle offense in the first half, the Bombers went no-huddle for the second half with the jet sweeps of Mintz, six for 53 yards, and Middleton, two for 40 yards, finding room for gain on the edges.
“We came up with a couple play calls that we hadn’t used in the first half that we were able to implement in the second half,” Grubich said. “And I’ll tell you what, their front seven are very good. I mean, we knew going straight at them would be difficult all night long. So, we wanted to get to the edges, and we were able to accomplish that. I probably should have done it a few more times.”
Kenston’s defense had Mayfield third-and-17 at midfield on the ensuing series, but a broken pass play had Huss tucking the leather and taking off for an 18-yard gain. Then he completed a 22-yard touchdown toss to Isabella on slant to reclaim the lead, 14-7, with 1:35 to go in the third quarter.
But the Bombers came back on a 77-yard drive that featured a 22-yard gain by Mintz and a 34-yard gain by Middleton on two more of those sweeps, before Tomcufcik delivered a 5-yard touchdown toss over the middle to 6-foot-5 sophomore tight end Ryan Miller. But the ensuing two-point attempt was no good, and the Bombers trailed, 14-13, with 10:01 to play.
The defensive struggle turned into an offensive showdown in crunch time.
Mayfield came back on a 77-yard, 11-play drive that concluded with Huss redialing Isabella on a 20-yard touchdown toss that he delivered on the money for the Wildcats’ 21-13 upper hand with 4:55 to play.
Mayfield’s speedy receivers got behind Kenston’s secondary all night, but Huss continued to overshoot them for the better part of three quarters, going four-of-13 for 76 yards to start the game. But Huss caught fire late to complete seven of his final eight passes to finish with 224 yards passing overall.
“We’ve got good wideouts, and they’ve got good wideouts,” Grubich said. “At any point in time, any of those wideouts could take it all the way on both sides of the ball. We emphasized coverage all week long. And it’s tough being a DB – nobody notices you on the run plays, but then they chuck it deep four or five times, and, if they complete one, then all eyes are on you.”
Kenston’s longest pass plays came on 31- and 26-yard receptions by Middleton and Mintz in the first quarter, but Mintz found daylight on a 92-yard kickoff return that took just 13 seconds off the clock. Tomcufcik kept the pigskin for a two-point conversion to tie the game, 21-21, with 4:42 to play.
That was the first special-teams touchdown Mayfield surrendered this season. Not to mention, the Wildcats have given up only four other touchdowns outside of 25 yards.
“That was a great, tremendous effort by Tyler (Mintz),” Grubich said of the 92-yard return. “The 10 dudes in front of him blocked their butts off. And, honestly, our kickoff-return team has been pretty lethal all year long. I was surprised they kicked it to him. I would not have kicked it deep to our guys.”
Kenston went deep itself on the ensuing kickoff, and Mayfield had a 30-yard return to the 39-yard line. Huss then found receivers on 30- and 20-yard tosses, before Suchy had an 11-yard carry to set up the Wildcats first-and-goal at the 3.
But Kenston’s run defense stayed home and stuffed Suchy twice and then put the breaks on a sweep by Isabella to force a Mayfield field goal attempt. Wildcat senior Henry Pernsteiner had no trouble splitting the uprights on an 18-yard boot with 32 seconds left for the eventual 24-21 final.
“We did a lot of great things in this game,” Grubich said of that final stand on defense to force a field goal. “It was a playoff-like game, and that’s a well-coached team over there. So, the positive is that it came down to the last possession, and we put ourselves in a position to win the game. Unfortunately, we gave up a couple of big plays, and they were able to kick that field goal.”
In defeat, the Bombers finished the regular season at 8-2 with a 5-2 mark in the WRC. They secured the eighth seed in Region 9 and will open their postseason on the road against top-seed New Philadelphia (9-1) at 7 p.m. Friday at Woody Hayes Memorial Stadium – the site of their 2018 state semifinal victory against Columbus Eastmoor.