Without a doubt, it's been a rollercoaster season for the Saint Ignatius varsity football team.
The Wildcats have seen ups and downs in a crazy season filled with top-flight opponents. On Saturday at Lakewood Stadium, the Wildcats experienced a low point in an adversity-filled journey.
In a hard-fought rivalry game, the Wildcats' defense played outstanding, but the offense could not crack the Eagles' similarly talented defense on a last-minute drive. In a heart-pounding game that entertained a capacity crowd, St. Edward emerged victorious, 7-3.
Saint Ignatius Head Coach Chuck Kyle '69 often says that you win or you learn. So what did the Wildcats learn today? Well, start with a rock-solid defense.
"We can play with anybody in the state of Ohio," Kyle said. "Nobody has stopped that [St. Edward] team all year. If someone told me 5 hours ago that they would only score 7 points, I'd say, 'Woah, thank you!' But it was a weird game. Both offenses moved it between the 30 and the 30, but we couldn't get points out of it."
The "Rule of 14" held steady in the 59th game between the Eagles and Wildcats. Saint Ignatius has never beaten St. Edward when scoring less than 14 points. The Eagles are now 22-0 when holding the Wildcats to less than 14 points.
From the start, the game was a defensive chess match. In the first quarter, neither team accomplished much on offense. The Wildcats and Eagles each drove the ball past the 50, but could not finish off drives. Jack Dunstan made a great catch on a 3rd and long, only to have the drive stall a few plays later. The Eagles also experienced some success before Bennett Adler interceded, knocking away a crucial third-down pass.
The Eagles did win the field position battle for much of the opening stanza. St. Edward drove deep into Wildcats' territory midway through the second quarter, and looked poised to score. But a holding penalty and other miscues late in the 17-play drive forced a 39-yard field goal on 3rd and long.
The Eagles decided to run a trick play, faking the field goal. The Wildcats were not fooled, and held firm, with Connor Francz and Co. keeping the Eagles well short of the first down.
On the ensuing drive, running back James Crosby began to pound the ball down the Eagles' throats. The senior grounded forward for some yards, and Hanna helped plenty with passes to Connor Cmiel and Jake Lang.
A timely pass from Hanna to Cmiel set the Wildcats on the Eagles' 5-yard line with 52 seconds left. Saint Ignatius looked poised to find paydirt, but a false start penalty knocked the Wildcats off-kilter. Unable to find the end zone with time expiring, the Wildcats called on the kicking team with 5 seconds left. On an uncharacteristic play, the Wildcats missed the field goal from 26 yards. The 14-play drive that consumed 5:45 of the clock went for naught.
So, despite great drives by both teams, the score stood at 0-0 entering the break.
"We missed an opportunity before halftime," said Coach Kyle. "The penalty screwed it up, and then we miss a field goal. It wouldn't have won the game, but it was a missed opportunity."
The Eagles started with the ball in the second half, but did little with the opportunity. Saint Ignatius, however, did make something of its opening drive of the stanza. The Wildcats marched down the field, thanks in part to a ground-and-pound strategy with runs to Jack Welcsh. But things stalled at the Eagles' 32-yard line. In trotted Declan Mangan to kick a 49-yarder. Mangan's boot came up in the clutch, as the junior rang it true for 3 points.
With 6:03 left in the third quarter, the Wildcats had the first points and lead of the game, 3-0.
The Eagles could not respond on their next drive, as Adler deflected a pass out of harm's way. After a St. Edward punt, the Wildcats were pinned deep inside their own territory, and failed to gain much traction.
On the last possession of the quarter, St. Edward finally found its footing on offense. The Eagles methodically drove down the field. On a 9-play, 61-yard march, St. Edward used Joe Formani and Conor O'Malley on run plays and a little playaction to get down the field. Early in the fourth quarter, Formani dipped and dodged his way into the end zone for 6 points.
A 7-3 lead would turn out to be all the Eagles needed.
The Wildcats could not gain traction on their next drive, punting it away. Thankfully, the Saint Ignatius defense again ate up the Eagles' attack, forcing another boot. The Wildcats' next drive appeared promising, with a few completions, but penalties pushed the Cats back. On third and long, Hanna heaved a desperation pass across the field to Nick Schwitzgebel. The crazy pass and the ensuing lateral, was called back, as the pass to Schwitzgebel was a forward pass, and therefore illegal touching was called. On fourth and long, the Wildcats had no choice but to punt.
"You have these 5 yards penalties, and all of the sudden, it's First and 15. Come on, it's hard enough to get 10 yards on that defense, let alone 15," Coach Kyle said. "Those are the mistakes that hurt."
Again, the Wildcats' defense stepped into the limelight. Once more, the men of Ryan Franzinger '02 performed in the clutch, forcing a St. Edward punt when the Wildcats needed it most.
With 2:04 left and one timeout, the Wildcats took over at their own 32-yard line. Driving down the field, Hanna and the passing attack looked to be clicking. The Wildcats started to march down the field into St. Edward territory. But with 1:09 left, a crucial interception was thrown. Suddenly, just as soon as a promising would-be game-winning drive began, it was over.
The Wildcats' hopes were dashed, as the Eagles kneeled on the ball to secure a 7-3 win.
The loss undoubtedly stings terribly for the Wildcats. But the defense deserves plenty of commendation for a job well done. The Saint Ignatius defense limited St. Edward to just 109 rushing and 85 passing, a total of 194 yards on 51 plays. St. Edward's previous low output on offense was 21 points against Erie Cathedral Prep, a 21-14 win on a soggy Erie night.
Michael McNamara led all Wildcats with 5 tackles. Welcsh finished close behind with 4 tackles, adding a tackle for loss. Anthony Gerace, Max Watters, and Bennett Adler all did well on the D-line, combining for 8 tackles, 1 sack, and 2 tackles for loss. Kudos also to Connor Francz (3 tackles, 1 tackle for loss, 1 pass breakup) and other unheralded heroes on the defense. The Wildcats notched 6 tackles for loss and 6 pass breakups.
"The last two weeks, the defense has blossomed," said Coach Kyle. "You knew it was there, and it did. No one has stopped Ed's all year, and they've scored a lot. Honestly, it was a team-oriented defense. I don't think one guy did all of the work. It was teamwork."
The offense also did much better than the 7-3 score suggests. The Wildcats tallied 286 yards on offense, outgaining the Eagles by nearly 100 yards. Jack Welcsh hit the century mark with 20 carries for 100 yards. Griffin Hanna finished 13-of-26 for 200 yards against a fierce Eagles' defense.
But penalties proved to be the Wildcats' undoing. Saint Ignatius was penalized nine times for 65 yards.
The men of Ohio City now drop to 3-4 on the year. The Wildcats sit in 11th in Region 1, just 0.9546 points behind the eighth and final playoff team (Brunswick).
To earn a playoff spot, the Wildcats need to win out and get a little help. Archbishop Moeller (1-6), St. Xavier (6-1), and West Toronto Prep (0-7) all stand in the way of the Wildcats.
"Our whole approach has to be win out and see what happens. That's all you can do," said Coach Kyle.