The outcome, on the other hand, wasn’t the least bit what they wanted —or remotely even expected.
That’s because, for the second consecutive OHSAA Division V football final in Stark County, the Kirtland Hornets defeated the Fighting Tigers —this time on Saturday by a whopping 38-0 count inside spectacular and historic Paul Brown Tiger Stadium in Massillon.
That’s correct, for it was that lopsided.
Only a year ago, or less than a full calendar year ago in Canton, the Hornets topped the Fighting Tigers 17-7 —denying Ironton its third all-time state championship after previous titles 10 years apart (1979 and 1989).
That halftime score was 10-0 —the same as Saturday’s as Kirtland kicked a field goal with a minute-and-a-half remaining in the first quarter, followed by a 1-yard Liam Powers quarterback sneak coming 10 minutes later.
But Saturday’s second half — unlike last season — was all Hornets, which ran three times as many plays (31-10) and poured on 28 more points over a span of nine minutes and 23 seconds.
The Hornets had their way with the Fighting Tigers — for pretty much the entire game but especially over the final 40 minutes.
Ironton only amounted three first downs to Kirtland’s two dozen plus one (25), ran just 28 total plays compared to the Hornets’ 70, was outgained by over 350 yards (407-56) including by over 220 rushing (263-42), and was dominated 2-to-1 (32 minutes to 16 minutes) in time of possession.
The Fighting Tigers truly hurt themselves with three turnovers and eight penalties —as they lost two crucial third-quarter fumbles which directly resulted in 14 Hornet points.
In the end, Ironton ends up as state runner-up for the second straight year — and for the eighth time (1973, 1982, 1988, 1992, 1993, 1999, 2019, 2020) in program history.
It was the Fighting Tigers’ 10th all-time state championship game — half of which have occurred in famed football-crazy Massillon.
Ironton is now 0-5 all-time in title tilts played there.
The Fighting Tigers finish at 11-1 in this coronavirus-shortened season, as Kirtland —at 11-0 — captured its sixth all-time state championship, with all occurring in the past decade.
In that decade of pure dominance, the Hornets have won five state titles —in 2011, 2013, 2015 and 2018 as a Division VI program, before bumping up to Division V last season.
Kirtland also —for the second straight year — went back-to-back and wire-to-wire as the top-ranked team in the Division V Associated Press statewide poll.
The Fighting Tigers were the runner-up on paper as well, although there was the prevailing thought among Ironton and even some statewide observers that the only finals rematch from 2019 would produce a different result.
By the time it was 17-0 in the third quarter yet again, Ironton —which hadn’t allowed any more than 19 points in any one game this season — saw its comeback hopes essentially dashed by the Sullivan siblings on one snap.
Mason Sullivan, with five carries of the seven plays on the 65-yard drive, scored from 17 yards out only two minutes and 51 seconds into the third.
Two plays later, the Fighting Tigers fumbled at their own 35-yard-line —and this time Sullivan made them pay with his arm.
After the only Kirtland penalty, a 15-yard personal foul in fact on the recovery which pushed the Hornets back to midfield, Sullivan fired a halfback pass — and found his brother Gage wide open at the 20-yard line.
As for this year, the running clock actually went into effect with 4:55 remaining in the third, as Ironton —which punted four times — went three-and-out for the third time in the game.
Mason Sullivan picked up 24 yards on the first play following that punt, as Ironton was whistled for a chop-block penalty — moving the ball to the Fighting Tigers’ 21.
Anthony DeMarco ran in from eight yards out three plays later, making it 31-0 —as the game’s final 16:55 was played under the OHSAA’s running-clock rule.
But, it only went from bad to worse — and seemingly barrelling downhill — from there.
On the very next snap, the Fighting Tigers fumbled the exchange — and the Hornets the ball in Ironton territory again at the 39.
Seven plays later, and taking 4:21 off the third-quarter clock that spanned the first 14 seconds of the fourth frame, Kirtland scored again —this time with Powers finishing the drive with an 18-yard touchdown toss to Danny Davidson.
The first of those was for 11 yards, which was Ironton’s only third first down.
While the Hornets hit for 28 second-half points, it was a 23-yard first-half pass completion —after replay review —which totally turned the tide.
Ironton’s initial three possessions had resulted in a pair of punts sandwiched around a turnover on downs, whereas the Hornets drove 12 plays and 57 yards and five minutes and 16 seconds — before Rodin registered the late 30-yard first-quarter field goal.
Kirtland’s next series saw it pick up five first downs in a massive 14 plays, including on a 4th-and-1 call— in which Sullivan’s second effort and spin gained three yards to the 37.
Then, on 3rd-and-7 at the 34, Powers completed a pass along the sideline to Joey Grazia, who made an acrobatic one-handed and two-footed catch that was initially ruled as caught out of bounds.
However, with the benefit of video replay for the state championship games, the call was reversed —as Grazia got both feet in at the 11-yard line for the 23-yard reception.
How bad was it for Ironton?
As Newfound Glory once sang, it was all downhill from here.
The standout senior Sullivan, who amounted a game-high in carries (19) and yards (126), carried from the 11 to the goal line on the next snap — as Powers pushed across at the 3:34 mark on the sneak.
Rodin’s first of five extra-point kicks made it 10-0, as that aforementioned 14-play drive covered 76 yards and five minutes and 52 seconds.
Pendleton said it was one of several early instances, even into the second half, in which the Fighting Tigers tried to seize momentum — and simply never could.
“There were several times that we could have swung momentum, and unfortunately we obviously didn’t do anything to do that,” he said. “High school football is a big game of momentum, and we just never got it in our favor.”
Reid Carrico, as part of Ironton’s 42 rushing yards on 20 attempts, led with 28 yards on 11 totes.
Carrico — the Ohio State signee and apparent frontrunner for Ohio’s prestigious Mr. Football award — was the Defensive AND Offensive Player of the Year in the Southeast District for Division V.
He was also the leader of the Fighting Tigers’ talented and highly-touted senior class, which was mightily important to back-to-back appearances in the state championship game.
The seniors were part of Ironton’s 12th and 13th all-time regional championships — the program’s first of those since 1999.
Their only missing piece to the puzzle will be another state title — despite getting the rematch that they oh so desired.
“That’s where the focus needs to be at. I can’t say enough about these kids and the work they put in. Just countless hours and mornings and afternoons where no one is watching, these guys just show up and work,” said Pendleton. “They are great leaders and men off the field too. I’m proud of them for what they’ve done and the place they’ve left the program.”
* * *
Ironton 0 0 0 0 —0
Kirtland 3 7 21 7 — 38
K — Mario Rodin, 30-yard field goal, 1:32, 1st (3-0 K)
K — Liam Powers, 1-yard run (Mario Rodin kick), 3:34, 2nd (10-0 K)
K — Mason Sullivan, 17-yard run (Mario Rodin kick), 9:09, 3rd (17-0 K)
K — Gage Sullivan, 50-yard pass from Mason Sullivan (Mario Rodin kick), 8:17, 3rd (24-0 K)
K — Anthony DeMarco, 8-yard run (Mario Rodin kick), 4:55, 3rd (31-0 K)
K — Danny Davidson, 18-yard pass from Liam Powers (Mario Rodin kick), 11:46, 4th (38-0 K)
First downs 3 25
Scrimmage plays 28 70
Rushes-yards 20-42 55-263
Passing yards 14 144
Fumbles-lost 3-2 1-1
Penalties-yards 8-45 1-15
Punts-Ave 4-42.75 1-40
RUSHING —Ironton: Reid Carrico 11-28, Cameron Deere 3-6, Tayden Carpenter 3-0, Trevon Carter 1-5, Trent Hacker 1-4, Team 1-(-1); Kirtland: Mason Sullivan 19-126 TD, Anthony DeMarco 17-76 TD, Liam Powers 11-29 TD, Nick Schwartz 4-16, Mason Rus 3-11, Joey Grazia 1-5
Therefore, quite simply, Carrico — on either side of the football — had no choice but to make the play of his young life on Saturday night.
And, although observers agree almost in unison that Carrico is the best linebacker in the entire country, it was his touchdown reception that ultimately lifted the still undefeated and 11-0 Fighting Tigers to a thrilling state semifinal victory.
Not to mention, to the rematch they oh so desperately wanted — and have waited almost a full calendar year for.
Carrico, in a Mr. Football-esque performance as the six-foot three-inch 235-pound senior is widely considered the front-runner, rushed for a whopping 191 yards and two touchdowns on a game-high 27 carries —but memorably caught the 23-yard touchdown on a wheel route en route to the Fighting Tigers’ 22-19 Division V triumph inside London’s Bowlus Field.
That’s correct, as the tradition-rich Fighting Tigers’ 10th state championship game appearance is forthcoming this weekend — after making their 13th all-time appearance in the Final Four.
Never mind Carrico’s 78-yard untouched touchdown dash just five minutes in, or his 1-yard TD plunge to turn the Spartans’ sole turnover into points —and a 13-0 advantage only a minute-and-a-half into the second quarter.
Nope, it was his third of three receptions for 39 yards that was indeed the charm this time, as Carrico — with a well-executed play-call and throw from the left-handed Tayden Carpenter — caught a wide-open wheel route and raced into the end zone with eight minutes remaining for a 19-19 tie.
In addition, Carrico pointed his finger in delight towards the frigid but frenzied Fighting Tiger faithful following the colossal score.
The play was the final of eight on a 65-yard drive that consumed three minutes and 53 seconds off the fourth-quarter clock, and even more impressively occurred on a 4th-down-and-7 call from the Spartan 23 — following the Fighting Tigers whistled for a false start penalty and pushed back five yards.
“That play has been big for us for three years now. Pretty much we just hammer you inside until your corners or safeties get lazy. They run off with the tight end or they get sucked inside, and I just wheel right out of the backfield. They never see it coming,” said Carrico. “That’s pretty much that play summed up in a nutshell, but every time we run that play, it comes up big for us. We work on that play a lot.”
“Every play in football is called to execute, be a positive play and score a touchdown. Big-time players make big-time plays in big-time games. You saw that. It has nothing to do with coaching. We just have good kids who make great plays,” said Ironton coach Trevon Pendleton. “They aren’t going to shy away from anyone or anything.”
The first seven plays of that march were all running calls, as Cameron Deere dialed up for 21 yards on the second snap — moving the ball between the 40s and into Roger Bacon territory.
Before that score, Ironton’s 13-0 advantage evaporated into a 19-13 deficit by the 3:37 mark of the third quarter —thanks to three lost fumbles which Kiner and the Spartans (10-1) turned into points.
But immediately after Ironton’s two fumbles in its own territory, Huber connected with Ryan Hallau with a 20-yard touchdown strike before Danny Hudepohl —the Roger Bacon backup quarterback and athletic wideout — hit Jake Tschida with a halfback option pass from 31 yards away and the 13-13 tie midway through the second stanza.
Huber’s TD toss with the extra-point kick came with 6:40 remaining in the period, before Tschida’s touchdown came just 57 seconds later.
The Fighting Tigers then fumbled a third time on their third play of the second half at the Spartan 15, and Kiner —with gains of 18 and 32 along the way —capped off a massive dozen-play, 85-yard, five-minute and 11-second scoring drive with a 3-yard run.
Kiner carried 23 times for 102 yards and caught one pass for 11, accounting for involvement on 24 of Roger Bacon’s 44 plays from scrimmage —as the Spartans had 196 total yards.
“We knew he was going to like to bounce runs. I knew that he would run through tackles, but he was extremely hard to tackle. He’s probably the best player that I’ve played against since I’ve been in high school,” said Carrico. “It was really an honor to compete against him.”
However, for the second straight Spartan touchdown, Ironton altered an extra-point kick —leaving the score at the six-point deficit (19-13) instead of an eight-point (21-13) margin.
What also showed was the Fighting Tigers’ resiliency and ability to win another close encounter.
The state semifinal win was Ironton’s smallest margin of victory this season, but its third in a row of 10 points or less.
“We love to be in a slobber-knocker. We get a game like this, with a player like Corey Kiner going to LSU, it doesn’t get much better than that,” said Carrico. “We came back, persevered, and got it done.”
That the Fighting Tigers did after the two teams traded punts with Roger Bacon leading 19-13.
That’s when Ironton took possession seven seconds into the fourth quarter, and went ahead by a single point exactly 3:53 later.
Then, just two plays and 42 seconds after that, the Fighting Tigers tacked on two points with a safety —as a high Spartan snap sailed over Huber’s head and rolled into the end zone where the junior signal-caller could only fall on the football.
But perhaps the Fighting Tigers’ top two defensive plays came on the Spartans’ final possession.
With a 3rd-and-7 situation, Carrico and Ashton Duncan combined for a sack on Huber, resulting in a nine-yard loss.
The officials then bailed the Spartans out with a highly-questionable pass interference penalty on 4th-and-16, but the distance did prevent a Roger Bacon first down —and instead set up a 4th-and-1.
It then appeared Ironton initially jumped offsides, but the Fighting Tigers got back and the whistles never blew —as instead a Spartan flinched for a five-yard false start penalty.
Finally, on the 4th-and-6 at the Spartan 40, Roger Bacon ran Kiner on an option into the short side of the field —but the Fighting Tigers, with the sideline serving as a de facto defender, took him down for a 4-yard loss and a turnover on downs.
With that — and only two-and-a-half minutes to play — Carrico carried twice more for 13 yards, Carpenter knelt down three times, and Ironton officially put defending Division V state champion and 2020 Associated Press poll champion Kirtland on the clock.
Carrico, the Southeast District Division V Defensive AND Offensive Player of the Year, said a bad taste has lingered with the Fighting Tigers since that stone cold Saturday night in Canton.
“They are a great team and program. And ever since last year, we’ve had a sour taste in our mouths. You’re going to see two great defenses again and whoever can come up with the big play is going to win. Last year, those big plays went their way. Hopefully this year, we’ll make enough to get it done,” he said. “We’ll see.”
Expect to see another defensive struggle in this season’s state title tilt —which is set for Saturday at 2 p.m. at Fortress Obetz in south Columbus.
Ironton 6 7 0 9 —22
I — Reid Carrico, 1-yard run (Jimmy Mahlmeister kick), 10:27, 2nd (13-0 I)
RB — Ryan Hallau, 20-yard pass from Logan Huber (Dylan Rolfert kick), 6:40, 2nd (13-7 I)
RB — Jake Tschida, 31-yard pass from Danny Hudepohl (kick failed), 5:43, 2nd (13-13 tie)
RB — Corey Kiner, 3-yard run (kick failed), 3:37, 3rd (19-13 RB)
I — Reid Carrico, 23-yard pass from Tayden Carpenter (Jimmy Mahlmeister kick), 8:00, 4th (20-19 I)
I — Safety, tackle quarterback in end zone, 7:18, 4th (22-19 I)
First downs 14 14
Scrimmage plays 59 44
Rushes-yards 47-263 26-98
Passing yards 46 98
Total yards 309 196
Penalties-yards 13-124 8-74
Punts-Ave 4-37 4-38.5
RUSHING —Ironton: Reid Carrico 27-191 2TD, Cameron Deere 3-35, Kyle Howell 3-24, Trevor Carter 3-9, Tayden Carpenter 8-(-4), Terrance West 1-4, Trent Hacker 1-4; Roger Bacon: Corey Kiner 23-102 TD, Jahmal Hutsell 1-8, Danny Hudepohl 1-5, Team 1-(-17)
PASSING — Ironton: Tayden Carpenter 5-12-0-46 TD; Roger Bacon: Logan Huber 6-17-1-67 TD, Danny Hudepohl 1-1-0-31 TD
RECEIVING — Ironton: Reid Carrico 3-39 TD, Kyle Howell 1-5, Ashton Duncan 1-2; Roger Bacon: Ryan Hallau 3-39 TD, Jake Tschida 2-41 TD, Corey Kiner 1-11, Danny Hudepohl 1-7