MOUNT STERLING — Three months ago, Rick Reinhart was filled with questions about Tuscola High School's football team.
Reflecting on last year's state runner-up team, the coach realized, "We had to replace a lot of people. We lost our receivers, our fullback, our quarterback and really had only one offensive lineman (Robert Lopez) back."
Even eternal optimists wouldn't have predicted the season ending with the team playing for a state championship at Memorial Stadium.
"We never dreamed at the beginning of the year we'd be in this position," Reinhart said.
Tuscola hit the winning trifecta on Saturday, earning a third successive berth in a Class 1A state title game by virtue of an inspired second half against Brown County. The Warriors prevailed 33-14.
An offensive shootout between defensive-minded teams was not an expectation as Tuscola eliminated Brown County from the playoffs for the third straight season, all on the Hornets' field.
"Both of our defenses are unbelievable," Austin Sexson said. "We did not expect this at all."
Mount Sterling's previous four opponents collectively had scored 19 points. No team had scored more than three TDs against the Hornets this season until Saturday.
The state semifinal game essentially featured three teams: Brown County, the Tuscola team of the first half and the Tuscola team of the second half.
At intermission the Warriors (11-2) had 89 yards of total offense, 52 coming on a short pass from Philip Meyer that hard-charging Jordan Scribner turned into a touchdown.
The halftime break was what Tuscola needed to refocus after falling behind 7-6.
"Our senior class took over," Josh Brookins said. "We said if we're going to have a chance the seniors have to do what we do."
What Tuscola did was the exact opposite of what many observers would have suspected. A team that had passed for more than 2,000 yards and didn't have a back with as much as 725 rushing yards played a ball-control keepaway game during the final 24 minutes.
The Warriors had the ball for 19 minutes, 19 seconds out of the final 24 minutes. The longest second-half Brown County possession lasted 87 seconds.
Of Tuscola's 48 second-half plays, 45 were ground-oriented. Meyer carried 23, Brookins and Sexson had 10 carries apiece, helping the team amass 288 second-half rushing yards.
"Our offensive line did great and we ran the ball down their throats," Brookins said.
Tuscola pulled away by scoring touchdowns on four of five second-half possessions. Meyer reached the end zone twice. Brookins and Sexson had one score each.
"Meyer did a great job," Brown County coach Tom Little said. "He is very multi-dimensional. He is a force as a runner and we knew he had that capability."
Reinhart said it was "by design," that Meyer wasn't the go-to back during the first 12 games, averaging 12 carries per game.
"He didn't carry much. We didn't want him getting hurt," Reinhart said. "He has gotten stronger and stronger. Now, he's the man."
Overall, Meyer had 32 carries for a game-high 135 rushing yards. He completed 3 of 7 passes for 71 yards.
That inexperienced line, which concerned the coach in the preseason, has evolved into a battle-tested superior unit.
"Andy Romine is the best offensive line coach in the world," Reinhart said. "The job he has done is phenomenal."
Tuscola's defense forced three second-half turnovers. Jimmy Knight and Nolan Walsh recovered fumbles on consecutive Brown County plays. Scribner intercepted a game-clinching pass with 1:02 remaining.
Lopez, Walsh and T.J, Onstott were the top Tuscola tacklers, with seven apiece. Sexson had six stops.
"Three years in a row. I'm speechless," Walsh said. "I can't think straight. It's mind-boggling, as (former Warrior) Pat Yoakum would say."
Walsh said, "something sparked in us," as the Tuscola coaches spoke at halftime. It showed from the second-half kickoff, which Sexson returned 26 yards.
The next three plays were runs by Sexson, Meyer and Brookins and resulted in gains of 10, 9 and 15 yards, respectively. The nine-play drive ended with a 7-yard scoring run by Sexson, followed by a two-point conversion pass from Meyer to Brookins.
With 9:13 left in the third period, Tuscola led 14-7 and was off to the races.
"In the first half we didn't come out like we have," said Onstott, who needs three tackles in the state title game against Dakota to become the Warriors' all-time career top tackler. "We knew it was one more half or we'd be done.
"It was the seniors getting together, and they weren't ready for us."
As for not reaching the career milestone, Onstott said, "We won, and that's what matters."
One reason for Tuscola's reliance on the running game — besides keeping the clock moving once it got the lead — was a tribute to the Hornets' defense.
"One thing that surprised us is that their defensive backs were quicker than we thought and we had a hard time getting people open," Reinhart said.
Brookins ended with 91 rushing yards. Sexson gained 75 and Jimmy Knight had 19.
Brown County (11-2) was limited to 112 rushing yards on 31 attempts.
After getting an up-close look at the Warriors three years in a row, Little said, "this team is right up there with the other two. They have a great program that turns out good kids."