REYNOLDSBURG – Entering their OCC-Ohio division opener on the night of September 28th, 2018, the undefeated Raiders trailed for a grand total of 55 seconds during the season and gave up only 27 total points in the process. They quickly fell behind at home against rival Pickerington North: a team the Raiders were 1-9 against all time going into the night that had beaten Reynoldsburg in the previous two seasons by a combined score of 66-7. The Raiders would eventually trail by a score of 24-7 entering the 4th quarter and were in danger of a 10th loss in the series to spoil their undefeated start to the season.
And then the impossible happened.
Down by 17 with 15.1 seconds left in the third quarter, the Raiders (6-0, 1-0) would drive 66 yards in 46 seconds and into the end zone on a 7-yard touchdown run by junior running back MarcAnthony Gray early in the final period. Reynoldsburg would score two more unanswered touchdowns in the next four minutes, including a 90-yard interception return by senior receiver/defender Mershawn Rice to take the lead for the first time, and would take a two-score lead with 1:24 to go on another 1-yard touchdown run by senior running back Guy Cowans-Wright. While the Panthers (4-2, 0-1) would score once more after that, it wasn’t enough to overcome 26 straight 4th-quarter points by the Raiders to cap off a stunning rally and monumental 33-31 home victory to keep Reynoldsburg undefeated.
“This was a very big win tonight,” Raiders head coach Buddy White said after the game. “This is very special because over ten years, we only beat [Pickerington North] one time back in 2015, and when they beat us, they usually hammer us. We could have folded the tent being down 24-7, but big time players started making big time plays. We are very blessed to have the type of players that we have; these guys are not going to quit, they believe in themselves and their coaches, and they believe in their teammates.”
Raiders junior quarterback Michael Whatley completed only 7 of his 18 passes for 110 yards and a touchdown, but did not turn the ball over and made great clutch plays down the stretch. This included a 17-yard pass to senior receiver Princeton Hoskins on a scramble with 11:47 to go to set up first and goal and Gray’s touchdown run; this was after a pass interference penalty by Pickerington North on 3rd and 6 at the Panthers 36 extended what ended up being the drive that started the miraculous comeback.
“The coaches were talking to us getting us all together and getting our minds right,” Whatley said of the comeback. “The defense got their stops, and our offensive line was doing amazing. They were blocking, getting holes open, and giving me so much time [in the pocket]. This is the biggest win we have ever had in my life and the most fun game of my life. But we just have to stay focused, because we are not done.”
And with the way Reynoldsburg is playing this season, there is the potential for even bigger wins on the horizon, as they sent a message loud and clear to the state of Ohio that they are for real after rallying to knock off the 8th-ranked Division I team in the state.
But how they overcame adversity in dramatic fashion against a big rival will be remembered by everyone in the Burg forever.
Reynoldsburg went three and out on their first drive, while Pickerington North would successfully execute a trick play for a 71-yard touchdown pass by sophomore tight end Jack Sawyer to junior receiver Chris Scott on their first offensive play to take a 7-0 over the Raiders just under a minute and a half into the game. This marked the first time the Raiders had trailed in 2018 since late in the first quarter in Week 1 at Upper Arlington, and it would be this way for the majority of the night. After Pickerington North’s touchdown, Reynoldsburg would go three and out again on their second drive, and the Panthers would respond by again driving into Raiders territory with two more first downs. Despite this and what ended up being just under a four-minute drive and the Panthers advancing to the Raiders 23, they would settle for a 40-yard field goal to take a 10-0 lead with 4:53 left in the opening quarter.
Whatley would run for 7 yards to convert a 3rd and 7 for a first down to move the chains for Reynoldsburg for the first time in the game. Despite advancing to the Panthers 23 and a 13-yard rush by Gray, the Raiders would turn the ball over on downs deep in Pickerington North territory two and a half minutes later. But senior linebacker Dez Cooper would sack Panthers quarterback Mike Lowery for an 11-yard loss to give the Raiders defense their first three and out of the game. Junior receiver James Dean would return the ensuing punt to the Panthers 42, and the Raiders would eventually get on the board with 13.2 seconds left in the opening quarter with a perfect 42-yard touchdown pass from Whatley to senior receiver Camby Goff in the top left corner of the south end zone to cut Pickerington North’s lead to 10-7 after twelve minutes of football in the Burg.
The Panthers would open the second quarter with three more first downs, including a 26-yard rush by Lowery, but would be forced to punt at the Raiders 45 just over three minutes into the period. The Raiders would get two more first downs on their ensuing drive, including on an 11-yard rush by Whatley, but a sack would negate the big gain and force the Raiders to punt to give the Panthers back the ball on their own 31 with 3:26 left in the half. After a pass interference call on the Raiders defense extended Pickerington North’s drive, Lowery would complete three passes of 19, 18, and then 17 yards for a Panthers touchdown to extend their lead to 17-7 over the Burg with 1:30 to go in the second quarter, and the score would stay this way as the Raiders would come up empty despite advancing into Panthers territory on their final drive of the half.
The Panthers would open the third quarter on their own 30 and would drive 55 yards to the Raiders 15 with 8:37 to go in the period, completing three more first downs in the process. But a 32-yard field goal attempt clanked the left upright and was no good, keeping the score at 17-7 in favor of Pickerington North. The Raiders would respond with three more first downs, but would come up empty on 4th and 11 as Whatley’s pass was caught by Goff out of bounds at the Panthers 25 with 4:29 left in the third quarter. Pickerington North would extend their lead to 24-7 by driving 68 yards the other way and running just over four minutes off the clock in the process, capping their drive off with Lowery’s third touchdown pass of the night for 8 yards to Scott (his second touchdown reception of the game).
But despite the Raiders being down by three scores to a heated rival they had only won once against in their ten all time meetings (a 10-7 Reynoldsburg win in 2015), they did not quit and would find a way back into the game.
Taking over on their own 33 late in the third quarter, junior receiver Andree’ Mock would catch a 15-yard pass from Whatley and get a boost from a Panthers penalty, and Whatley would march Reynoldsburg down to the Panthers 35 as the third quarter came to an end. A 3rd and 6 pass would fall incomplete, but Pickerington North was called for another defensive penalty to extend the drive. Whatley would then complete the aforementioned 17-yard pass to Hoskins while running towards the Pickerington North sideline to bring up first and goal for the Burg from the 7, and Gray would punch it in from 7 yards out to get within 24-14 of the Panthers with 11:29 to go.
The Panthers would then go three and out and only take 1:10 off the clock, and Dean would have a career-high 57 yard punt return to the Panthers 13 with 10:02 left in the game to cause the packed home crowd to erupt. Two plays later, junior running back Courtland Bullard got a block and ran 15 yards up the middle untouched into the end zone to cut Pickerington North’s lead to 24-21 with 9:13 left to play, giving the Raiders two quick touchdowns in just over a two-minute span in the final quarter of regulation.
“We saw at halftime that we could beat [Pickerington North] and we preached it all week,” Dean said of his team’s mentality throughout the game prior to talking about his big punt return. “We were down in the game, our energy was starting to rise up, and I felt like I needed to do something for our team. I got the ball and I didn’t know how it was going to turn out. It hit the ground, bounced up into my hands, and then they sealed the edge and I got pretty far.”
His head coach definitely agreed that this moment was a game-changer for the Burg.
“When I saw that we were down 24-7, I knew that our guys wouldn’t quit playing,” White would say. “I think they realized that we weren’t in a good place. But then when James [Dean] returned that punt, it was that spark that we were looking for. It came, we took advantage of it, we got that momentum going, and we’re a hard team to beat when you have momentum going like that.”
“And you can’t light a spark around kerosene.”
With all of the momentum in Reynoldsburg’s favor and plenty of time remaining, that kerosene began to burn and there would be a miracle on Livingston Avenue.
Despite Pickerington North converting two long plays for first downs and advancing to midfield with just under eight minutes to go in front of what was now a deafening home crowd, a deep pass by Lowery on the next play was intercepted by Rice at Reynoldsburg’s 10-yard line on what appeared to give the Raiders offense the ball back with a chance to take the lead.
Well, Rice would do it by himself before the offense even even had a chance to get back onto the field.
He would dodge virtually all Panthers receivers, linemen, and offensive players left on the field en route to what would be a 90-yard interception return for a touchdown to give the Raiders the lead for the first time in the game: a stunning 27-24 advantage (after what would be a missed extra point) with 7:30 to play with the erupting crowd probably loud enough to hear from the Summit Campus of Reynoldsburg High School.
Needing at least a field goal to now tie the game, Pickerington North would get the ball back on their own 18-yard line. Lowery would complete passes of 18 and 19 yards, and a 12-yard Panthers rush would put them in field goal range at the Raiders 26 with 5:28 to go. Senior defensive lineman Jay Amburgey would then sack Lowery for an 11-yard loss on the next play, and Rice would pick Lowery’s next pass off at the Raiders 10, returning his second interception in as many drives 25 yards to give the Raiders the ball back on their own 35 with 5:09 to go. With the clock still moving, senior running back J’Vonte Edwards would then convert a huge 3rd and 5 with 3:35 to go to advance the ball to the Raiders 46 with the home team leading by 3.
“It was impossible, but we did it,” Edwards said of the comeback. “We kept our heads on our shoulders, and the plan was to run the clock out when we were up, so we wanted to keep it that way.”
After another 11-yard carry by Edwards moved the chains again and kept the clock moving, Bullard would then bulldoze his way into scoring territory with a 47-yard rush to bring up first and goal from the 2 with 2:19 to play. On third and goal from the 1, Cowans-Wright would punch it in with a 1-yard touchdown rush with 1:24 left, but despite the missed extra point by Reynoldsburg, they would take a two-possession 33-24 lead as a result of 26 straight points by the home team to give the home crowd a huge sigh of relief.
“It felt great putting us up and putting us in a safe place,” Cowans-Wright said after the game of his late touchdown run. “We have a great team right here. I love everybody, and we made great clutch plays late when we needed it. We came together and we did it as a unit, and we’re only going to go up from here.”
His late touchdown ended up being the cushion the Raiders needed, as Lowery (24/38, 260 YDS, 2 TD, 2 INT) would complete an 8-yard pass for Pickerington North to senior tight end Tyler Foster (8 REC, 127 YDS), who would then lateral the ball back to senior receiver Jaylon Baylor to complete a 68-yard hook and lateral touchdown play to cut Reynoldsburg’s lead to 33-31 with 1:08 to go. But the resulting onside kick by the Panthers was kicked right to junior receiver Shon Strickland near midfield, where the Raiders would take over and run out the clock.
After time expired on the scoreboard, students poured onto the field as a result of one greatest comebacks anyone in attendance would ever see in person to keep the Raiders undefeated and one step closer to the school’s third playoff berth in its history, much to the delight of Edwards and the rest of the team.
“It felt great,” Edwards said of the postgame celebration. “[The students and fans] kept our energy level up when we were down, and that just kept us moving. It motivated us, our family was here for us, and that lifted us up.”
Most importantly, the Raiders control their own destiny for not a playoff berth after six weeks of football; after winning their division opener against Pickerington North and the 8th-ranked team in the state in unbelievable fashion for only their second win against the Panthers in school history, Reynoldsburg is still in firm control of its path to at least a share of its first OCC-Ohio division title since its only previous one in 1993.
But the Raiders know that, despite an emotional win of this nature where they overcame 458 total yards of offense by Pickerington North and gave up more points to them (31) than they did to all other teams in their previous five weeks combined (27), they need to quickly refocus as they have a road trip to division foe Gahanna-Lincoln next on their schedule in Week 7.
“We have to stay humble,” Dean continued to say of what lies ahead for Reynoldsburg. “We didn’t get here just walking through games and walking through practices. We are all putting in hard work that has come since January of last year. We’ve all come together with chemistry and everything.”
UNOFFICIAL DIVISION I REGION 2 RANKINGS (as of 9/30/2018):
Below are the official rankings of teams Reynoldsburg’s playoff region, along with the teams’ corresponding records and computer averages compiled by Joe Eitel. The Top 8 teams after the regular season (Week 10) will qualify for the playoffs.
1. Reynoldsburg (6-0, 18.1667)*
2. Dublin Coffman (6-0, 16.1333)
3. Delaware Hayes (5-1, 9.5000)
4. Gahanna-Lincoln (3-3, 8.7167)*
5. Olentangy Liberty (2-3, 8.5500)
6. Westerville Central (3-3, 8.5000)
7. Olentangy Orange (4-2, 8.3333)
8. Toledo Whitmer (4-2, 8.0119)
9. Upper Arlington (3-3, 6.8667- first team out)
In other words, Reynoldsburg would be the top-seeded team in this playoff region over undefeated Dublin Coffman if the season ended today thanks to its strength of schedule, and is comfortably ranked above the teams seeded 3-8 where there is not much separation.
The undefeated Raiders still control their own destiny for not only their first playoff appearance since 2015, but a home playoff game to open the postseason (given to the Top 4 teams after Week 10).
Should the Raiders qualify for the playoffs in 2018, they would play their postseason opener on the night Friday November 2nd, 2018. If the season ended today, Reynoldsburg would open the playoffs at home against 8th-seeded Toledo Whitmer.
*Gahanna-Lincoln and Reynoldsburg are the only two OCC-Ohio division members in this playoff region. All others are in Division I Region 3.
KEY RAIDERS STATS (WEEK 5):
-Total Yards: 284 (110 pass, 174 rush)
-Total Yards Allowed: 458 (331 pass, 127 rush)
-Passing: Michael Whatley (7/18, 110 YDS, 1 TD)
-Rushing: Courtland Bullard (6 CAR, 70 YDS, 1 TD); J’Vonte Edwards (9 CAR, 38 YDS); Guy Cowans-Wright (12 CAR, 24 YDS, 1 TD); MarcAnthony Gray (4 CAR, 23 YDS, 1 TD);
-Receiving: Camby Goff (1 REC, 42 YDS, 1 TD); Mershawn Rice (2 REC, 22 YDS)
-Defense: 4 sacks, 8 tackles for loss, 2 interceptions + 1 TD (Mershawn Rice)
-Special Teams: Camby Goff (3/5 XP)
The Raiders (6-0, 1-0) will remain in the Top 5 of the AP Division I Ohio football poll and will look to remain undefeated at division foe Gahanna-Lincoln (3-3, 0-1), who is currently seeded 4th in Reynoldsburg’s playoff region. The Lions got off to a rough start at Raiders’ arch-rival Pickerington Central (6-0, 1-0) in Week 6 and would trail 21-3 at the half, but would get within a touchdown of the Tigers and ultimately fall by a score of 27-13 on Thursday September 27th, 2018.
Gahanna-Lincoln will be coming off a loss at Pickerington Central (game pictured above) when Reynoldsburg comes to town in Week 7.
Kickoff at the Lions is at 7:00pm on Friday 10/5/2018 at Gahanna-Lincoln High School.
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