The big question for Solon (7-2, 5-1) was whether the Comets’ run defense could put the brakes on Strongsville 190-pound senior running back Garrett Clark during a Greater Cleveland Conference home battle Friday night at Stewart Field.
A 33-22 victory that would clinch a playoff berth for Solon defended on it.
The Mustang rock pounder was averaging nearly 200 yards rushing a game and coming off a seven-touchdown performance from the previous week. He wasted no time getting started with an 18-yard touchdown carry to give Strongsville a 6-0 lead with 6:09 to go in the first quarter against Solon.
But Solon, which has a losing record, 32-45, when its opponent scores first under 17th-year head coach Jim McQuaide, didn’t waste much time providing an answer.
On the Comets’ ensuing drive, 5-foot-10 junior quarterback Pat McQuaide found 5-foot-10 senior receiver Grant McCurry for a 74-yard pickup, and then McQuaide redialed McCurry on a 5-yard touchdown toss for a 7-6 lead with 4:54 left in the opening frame. Junior Noah Jahnke provided the extra point.
But Strongsville’s Clark, who would get 19 carries for 114 yards in the first half, scored his second touchdown on an 8-yard run for a 12-7 Mustang lead at the quarter mark. Strongsville then took a 15-7 lead on Will Hryszko’s 32-yard field goal with 4:16 to play in the half.
Solon 205-pound junior running back Khalil Eichelberger wasn’t going to be one-upped, however. The returning all-league selection got his motor going with a 54-yard touchdown run to cut the Comets’ deficit, 15-14, with 3:59 left in the half.
The Comets’ defense then forced a Strongsville punt on what was going to be the last play before the break, but the Mustang punter mishandled the snap and ran out of bounds with one second left.
Solon sent Jahnke onto the field for a 42-yard field-goal attempt, and he split the uprights for a 17-15 upper hand at intermission. The longest field goal by a Comet since coach McQuaide took the reins in 2003 is a 46-yarder by Pat Jacob in a 2007 game against Strongsville.
Solon senior speedster Greg Parries, a Division I state-podium finisher in the 100- and 200-meter dashes this past spring, received the third quarter kickoff and returned it 93 yards to the house for a 24-15 Comet lead with just 12 seconds coming off the clock in the frame.
Strongsville answered on Clark’s 10-yard touchdown run – his third of the game – to cut the Mustangs’ deficit, 24-22, with 10:26 left in the third quarter, but Clark would only gain 26 yards in the second half to finish with 140 yards for the game.
Once Solon’s run defense, headlined by 205-pound senior linebacker RJ Howard, who would finish with a team-high 22 tackles, solved Clark, the spotlight was on Solon’s Eichelberger, who would finish the night with 19 carries for 178 yards.
But Eichelberger’s next end-zone find came on a 33-yard reception from McQuaide to spread Solon’s lead back to two possessions, 31-22, with 3:19 to go in the third quarter. That touchdown came on a fourth-and-13 play.
The fourth quarter came down to field position, and that’s not a battle many teams want to face against Solon, which possesses senior punting guru Ethan Wong, who averages 37.4 yards per boot with a 58-yard long.
Wong punted away early in the fourth quarter, and Solon senior Caleb Sinclair was able to down the pigskin at the Mustang 2-yard line. That opened the door for linebacker Howard to sack Strongsville sophomore quarterback Maddux Beard for a safety and a 33-22 Comet lead with 9:27 left in the game. That score held up for the final.
Overall, Solon outgained Strongsville, 404 yards to 385 yards, with 17 fewer plays. Signal-caller McQuaide finished 15-of-24 passing for 236 yards with two touchdowns and one interception – just his second of the season.
McCurry had a team-high six catches for 113 yards, while Parries had five catches for 68 yards.
In addition to Howard’s 22 tackles on defense – just four shy of Nick Davidson’s program mark from 2010 – McCurry had five tackles and collected his fourth interception of the season.
With the win, Solon owns the No. 5 spot in the Region 1 computer rankings and clinched its 23rd postseason berth, including its 17th in the past 21 seasons, but a lot still needs to be determined in terms of seeding.
Strongsville dropped to 5-4 with a 2-4 mark in the GCC. Its playoff hopes are dismal with a season finale against AP No. 1-ranked Mentor (9-0, 6-0) on Friday.
Solon will finish its regular season with a road trip to take on Elyria (1-8, 0-6) at 7 p.m. Friday at Ely Stadium in Lorain County.