Nitro ends slide with 17-14 win over SA
As the timeouts were being exhausted by both sides and the final, tension-packed play was about to be snapped, Nitro's student section emptied out.
The teenagers were going to rush the field to celebrate the end of the Wildcats' 18-game losing streak, though it was hardly in the bag. St. Albans sat at the Nitro 2-yard line with 4 seconds left in a 17-14 game, ready to pound it into the end zone and steal another win in the Battle of the Bridge.
It was as if those students said, "Oh, no you don't. Not again, and definitely not on our field," and willed their young defense to rise up.
Ethan Clark, their most visible senior classmate, led the charge, breaking into the backfield and denying 134-yard rusher Drew Kirby. As the rest of Clark's younger teammates made his stick stand up, the Wildcats' 17-14 victory was final and the celebration began.
"He's our smartest player, by far," Nitro coach Derek Midkiff said of Clark. "I trust him to make plays, offense, defense and special teams. He's a smart enough kid, I just turn him loose."
Three minutes earlier, Clark's 39-yard run on an inside sweep put the Wildcats ahead, but they almost gave the Red Dragons too much time. By then, the Wildcats were wilting under Kirby's running and the Dragons were also sending big fullback Michael Kirby (No. 55, even) through the middle, effectively.
Quarterback Noah Reed hit freshman Jacob Grigsby for a 26-yard gain and then found Cole Medley for 9 yards to the Nitro 11. Grigsby caught another pass for 6 yards to pick up a first down, and Kirby ran 3 yards before St. Albans coach Steve Stoffel Jr. ordered the clock stopped.
The Dragons, who badly missed an extra-point kick in the first quarter, went for the win and didn't consider going for overtime. They tried to smash Kirby into the end zone in a full-house backfield, but failed to account for Clark.
"I knew the ball was going to go to [my] right, it was stacked to that side," Clark said. "Their two fullbacks didn't block me, I came up, wrapped him up at the 1-yard line and the whole team just collapsed on him."
"That defensive stop, with the exception of Ethan Clark, I counted three freshmen on that play," Midkiff said. "Including our nose guard, [Blake] Newman, who played a hell of a game. We have freshmen all over the place . . . We start seven freshmen, and they played their asses off today."
St. Albans (0-4) scored first after intercepting Chris Moody and starting at the Nitro 33. On the second play of the second quarter. Kirby took a short pass, danced around a few defenders and scored a 33-yard TD. With the missed extra point, the Dragons led 6-0.
Nitro (1-3) answered, driving just 35 yards after a Clark return to near midfield, followed by a St. Albans personal foul and an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. The Red Dragons drew too much yellow laundry, marching back 119 yards on 12 penalties.
Clark touched the ball just once on that drive, but Moody did the heavy lifting. After he threw to Nick Humphrey for 12 yards to the St. Albans 2, he scored with two successive sneaks to put the Wildcats up 7-6. That was the halftime score.
With the first possession of the third quarter, the Wildcats used 12 plays to get to the St. Albans 13, where Alex White booted a 32-yard field goal for a 10-6 lead. After the teams traded three-and-outs, St. Albans' Taylor Clark was snuffed on an ill-advised fake punt to give Nitro the ball near midfield.
The Wildcats went three-and-out, though, and committed a facemask foul early in the Dragons possession. A few plays later, Kirby broke free for a 40-yard run, and the Dragons opted to go for two. When Taylor Clark, who relieved Reed for two fourth-quarter possessions, hit Kyle Boles, SA led 14-10 with 6:11 left.
Staring into yet another heartbreak, Nitro found itself staring at fourth-and-3 from its own 29. Ethan Clark kept the Wildcats alive, taking Moody's quick pass for 12 yards.
It was Clark's first touch in more than a quarter, as the Dragons tried to take him away in all phases.
"They were playing man-to-man on me, and they had a safety lined up over top of me, so it was going to be tough to get the catches I was supposed to get," he said. "But then the coaches put me in motion, let my legs do the work and just run the ball, make some things happen."
After a 6-yard pass to Ethan Clark, Moody survived what would have been an interception, but the ball just did slip from Boles' grasp. Moody regrouped to hit Ethan Clark for 14, then handed off to him on that celebrated inside sweep from the SA 39.
With that touchdown, Clark finished with 106 combined yards, 48 rushing on three attempts and 58 on six receptions. Brayden Underwood rushed 108 yards on 23 attempts, as the Wildcats hung tough with 328 total yards to SA's 374.
And they hung tough in withstanding Red Dragons' final attempt to strong-arm the game away. Now, the Wildcats' grim streak is gone.
"Eighteen and no more," Midkiff said.
Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.