RED JACKET — Mingo Central wasted a pair of goal-line chances in the first half Saturday afternoon, and was left wanting at game’s end, especially against Fairmont Senior’s denying defense.
Caleb Walker scored three touchdowns and the No. 4 seed Polar Bears intercepted Kennedy Award winner Jeremy Dillon twice in the second half, helping turn the tide in Fairmont Senior’s 35-6 victory during a Class AA semifinal in front of about 5,000 fans at sunny, windy Buck Harless Stadium.
The win sends the Polar Bears (12-1) into the state title game at 7 p.m. Friday against No. 2 Bluefield (13-0) at Wheeling Island Stadium, and brought to an end a 26-game win streak for the Miners, the defending AA champions.
For Fairmont Senior, it also avenges a 32-7 loss to Mingo Central in last year’s state finals.
“We tried to focus on the opportunity we had this season,’’ said Fairmont coach Nick Bartic, “and not so much on the revenge factor. We wanted to take advantage of this opportunity and do what we do, get in our game and try to prove that we’re one of the best in the state.’’
It was a one-possession game until late in the third quarter, as the Polar Bears led 6-0 at the break on Connor Neal’s 28-yard scoring pass to Walker.
The Miners (12-1) frittered away a pair of solid scoring chances in the first half on their only two full possessions.
They had first-and-goal at the Fairmont 6 in the first half and second-and-4 at the Bears 5 in the second quarter and didn’t cash in either time against a defense led by a solid secondary and the pass-rush skills of linemen Dante Stills and Zach Frazier.
“They were huge stops mentally,’’ said Mingo Central coach Joey Fields. “We should have been up 14-6 at the half, and it goes like that. That’s a good football team over there, a better football team than last year.’’
The Miners evened it up on Dillon’s 1-yard run with 5:16 left in the third quarter, but Mingo Central’s next two possessions ended in interceptions – Bryson Gilbert’s 68-yard pick six for a Polar Bears touchdown to make it 20-6 and J.D. Smith’s theft at his own 38.
Smith’s interception also led to a Fairmont TD to make it 28-6, and the Miners were so far in catch-up mode they went for it on fourth-and-1 at their own 29 on the next possession and didn’t make it, leading to another Bears TD by Walker.
Dillon, who suffered a leg injury making a tackle on Gilbert on the final play of the first quarter, remained in the game but was less than 100 percent. He was 16 of 31 passing for 137 yards and ran 24 times for 106 yards.
“Jeremy got banged up,’’ Fields said, “and that limited us. He said, ‘Don’t hesitate to run me. I want to run that football.’ And he did well, but he was favoring it. And with Stills and Frazier, they get after you. Their size and skill – that’s a good football team that can win a state championship.’’
Fairmont Senior’s pass defense came into the game holding opponents to 68 yards per game and just seven pass TDs on the season. Respect for the Bears’ secondary prevented Dillon from taking many of his trademark deep shots.
“They weren’t allowing it,’’ Fields said, “especially to the guys who were our deep threats. It was so hard that if I took a deep shot with somebody who really couldn’t capitalize, you’re wasting a down and then it becomes second-and-10 with Stills [chasing you]. You’ve got to stay on time, and that’s a problem. The speed factor is more on their defense than on offense.’’
Bartic also pointed to his team’s two goal-line stands in the first half as the key factor in the game.
“That’s big,’’ Bartic said. “They drive all the way down and we tightened up at the goal line. It was a battle, and that’s the tale of the tape for us in the game. Then in the second half, we were able to get some stops, and our offense did a great job controlling the clock, and we got those two picks. Any time you can do that, you’re going to benefit.’’
Gilbert led the Polar Bears on the ground with 117 yards on 18 carries, and Neal completed 12 of 17 passes for 196 yards. He was not intercepted and was sacked only once. He also found Antonio Parsons with a third-quarter TD pass.
Dawson Elia added 83 yards on 13 carries for the Miners, much of them on a 49-yard sprint in the third quarter on the Miners’ lone scoring drive.
“We are who we are the whole season,’’ Fields said. “We made mistakes that showed today and in this game when they show against a good team, it’s like it gets amplified, gets even bigger. It can be a huge difference.’’