ST. JOSEPH — The big plays in a football game are easy to pinpoint. They bring the “oohs” and “aahs” from the crowd, usually followed by a rousing ovation that the cheerleaders orchestrate.
The bigger plays are ones that often go unnoticed by casual observers but are just as critical to the final outcome.
St. Joseph-Ogden had plays in both categories Saturday as it opened the Class 3A IHSA playoffs with a 43-25 triumph against Petersburg PORTA.
Orion Ciota’s 51-yard scoring romp, two plays after Porta created a 7-7 tie, was a big play. So was Jake Pence’s 70-yard interception return that increased SJ-O’s lead to 30 points with 10:07 left.
Ciota’s first of two TD scampers was made possible, coach Dick Duval said, “by a heck of a downfield block by Connor (Janes). He had a great lead block.”
Janes came up big at other points, too.
Seconds after Ciota’s run, PORTA’s Jesse Setzer returned the kickoff 90 yards for a tying TD. Janes blocked the extra-point attempt, keeping the score deadlocked at 13.
“Those things dictate what happens the rest of the game,” Duval said.
SJ-O’s special teams made amends for the kickoff-return score. Jake Stewart fielded a rugby punt on the run and raced 35 yards for a score that lifted the Spartans (8-2) into the lead for good, 20-13, with 7:40 left in the first half.
Janes kept the score that way at intermission. PORTA (5-5) drove to the SJ-O 5-yard line, where the junior linebacker broke up a fourth-down pass, returning the ball to SJ-O at the 4:21 mark.
“He’s capable of being that good,” Duval said. “He’s playing a lot better the last three weeks. He’s figuring it out.”
The Spartans are also figuring out that they don’t need to rely on one player. When Austin Hedrick was shelved for the season with a knee injury several weeks ago, Ciota became the featured tailback. When he left Saturday’s game with a thumb injury late in the third period after rushing for a team-high 166 yards, Janes stepped into the ball-carrying role. He rushed for 35 yards and caught a 33-yard pass on a third-down conversion.
“It’s like the seventh game of the World Series,” Duval said. “It’s all hands on deck. Everyone has to be available.”
That included Chase Gadau, who spent part of the first half on the trainer’s table, icing a knee. He returned in the second half as a fullback and linebacker.
The efforts of players such as Janes and Gadau didn’t surprise PORTA coach Rich McMahan.
“They had a variety of kids contribute,” he said. “That’s a testament to their depth.”
The Spartans finished with 244 passing yards from Dalton Walsh (11 of 17, no interceptions) and totaled 217 yards overall on the ground.
“Our offensive line pass-protected pretty well,” Duval said, “and Dalton showed the ability to scramble and throw on the run.”
SJ-O scored on its first possession, culminating an eight-play drive (which started with a 41-yard pass from Walsh to Jake Stewart) with a 4-yard scoring toss from Walsh to Hunter Hart, who latched onto the ball over his shoulder.
“Hunter showed good speed and the ability to hang on,” Duval said. “That first catch was as good as we’ve had around here in a long time.”
Hart, an Indiana University baseball recruit, was the game’s top receiver with 106 yards on five receptions.
“We knew they had the ability to throw,” McMahan said. “That’s the one thing that was missing from our game, the ability to throw the ball.”
PORTA was 3-for-13 passing. Pence picked off two passes.
“He’s a sophomore who has stepped up and makes a lot of our calls in the secondary, making sure the rest of us get in the right coverage,” Duval said.
SJ-O will travel to Monticello next Saturday, with the winner advancing into the quarterfinals.
“It feels good any time you win in the playoffs,” Duval said. “You get to play another week. Now it’s another one-game season.”