Turnovers key Spartans' runaway
GREENVILLE — Some football coaches will script out the first few offensive plays of a game. They know days in advance what a team will try on its opening plays from scrimmage.
St. Joseph-Ogden’s Dick Duval is not in that coaching fraternity.
“It all depends where we are on the field,” Duval said.
He had a clear game plan in mind for Saturday’s Class 3A IHSA state semifinal game at Greenville.
“I thought we had to run the ball and control the tempo,” Duval said.
So, what’s the call when his team recovers the opening kickoff on a Comets fumble and takes possession at the Greenville 21-yard line?
Quarterback Dalton Walsh tosses a 21-yard pass to Hunter Hart in the end zone. SJ-O leads 6-0 before the game is 15 seconds old.
“We came out and hit ’em hard,” SJ-O center Seth Griswell said. “I don’t think they knew what was coming at them.”
One of the storylines for the Spartans, who haven’t lost a game in more than two months, was a stout defense that yielded one touchdown through the game’s first 431/2 minutes.
“Our defensive line was able to put on enough pressure,” Duval said. “We realized from films the quarterback (Tyler Hutchinson, who passed the 4,000-yard mark for the season) only completed about 25 percent of his passes when he scrambled. We got him to where he was not comfortable throwing the ball.”
Jordan Hartman and Connor Janes had second-half sacks. Dylan Koss and Wyatt Sage notched first-half sacks.
SJ-O (11-2) recovered four fumbles and intercepted four passes. One of the picks was by sophomore Jake Pence, who returned an interception for a touchdown for the third time in four postseason games.
“He has a great knack for being around the ball and coming up with big plays,” Duval said. “Our defense was outstanding again.
“Before the game, I said we had to get eight stops (on Greenville possessions), and we got eight in the first half.”
Of the Comets’ nine first-half possessions, all but one ended in less than 90 seconds. Turnovers were one issue (five in the first two quarters) but so was an offense that misfired on 18 of 30 passes before intermission.
“We knew we couldn’t get in a shootout with them,” Chase Gadau said.
SJ-O didn’t let up after the break. The Comets’ first possession of the second half lasted 12 seconds. Three straight passes were incomplete, and Greenville punted on fourth down.
“We’re on a roll, and we’re playing well at the right time,” Duval said.
And, when things are going well, so are the breaks.
The Spartans’ fifth touchdown of the game came on a third-down pass from the Greenville 10. Walsh looked to Brady Depratt on a short route just in the end zone. The pass went through Depratt’s hands. Running behind him, on a deeper route in the same direction, was Hart.
In baseball, Hart is a pitcher, not a catcher, but he kept his concentration and caught the deflected ball for his second TD of the game.
“This has been our dream since we were 6 years old,” Griswell said. “We grew up talking about this, playing for a state championship. It’s an amazing feeling.”
Even Duval, in his 26th season as the Spartans’ head coach, acknowledged the same sentiments.
“This one is pretty special,” Duval said. “One reason it’s more special is my son (Kiel) is next to me. I’ve coached him, and now I’m coaching with him. Not many guys can say that.”
Depratt picked off two Greenville passes. Pence had one, and area interceptions leader Jake Stewart also had one. Hartman recovered two fumbles, the last one on a ball after he kicked off with 2 minutes, 31 seconds left. Gadau and Koss each recovered one fumble.
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Dick Duval made certain there’d be no one accusing him of running up the score.
When SJ-O took possession at the Comets’ 33- yard line with 2:31 left, he sent in backup quarterback Eli Oltean and asked him to take a knee on four consecutive plays.
That decision allowed Greenville to reclaim possession with 32.4 seconds left. The Comets showed their appreciation for Duval’s gesture by passing the ball on its next two plays and then scoring a TD with 9.9 seconds left, turning a 44-14 deficit into the final 44-21 margin.
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Duval showed that he’s been paying attention to what’s written in the newspapers. His first comments to a reporter — who had picked against his team the previous two weeks — was “you finally got a pick right.”