In a battle of Division I heavyweights, the men of Ohio City once again prevailed over a Cincinnati powerhouse.
On a sunny Saturday afternoon in Cincinnati, the Saint Ignatius Wildcats overcame a double-digit deficit to earn a 27-20 victory over the St. Xavier Bombers and claim a spot in the 2018 OHSAA Division I playoffs.
With the win, the Wildcats advance to 7-2 on the season entering the annual end-of-the-season showdown with crosstown rival St. Edward. The victory also marks the first time the Wildcats have defeated three Cincinnati teams during the regular season, earning an unofficial Greater Catholic League (GCL) South championship.
Traveling four hours to play a game, even when staying in a hotel the night before, poses a challenge for a high school football team. The Wildcats did all of the right things – getting plenty of sleep, eating right, and even jogging around the hotel after breakfast – but still experienced a sluggish start.
The Bombers used the Wildcats’ early struggles to build leads of 13-3 and 20-10. But in the end, the big-play Saint Ignatius defense and the meticulous Wildcats’ offense won the day.
“The win means a lot,” said Connor Cmiel after his 2-touchdown effort. “We started out slow, but it means a lot to come back strong. It was a good win for us.”
The contest began with a three-and-out for the Wildcats. On St. Xavier’s first drive of the game, Jack Welcsh intercepted the Bombers, a portent of things to come for a ball-hawking Saint Ignatius defense. The Wildcats could not take advantage of the nice field position at the St. Xavier 39-yard line, punting the ball.
Following a beautiful Pat Otter punt, St. Xavier assumed possession deep within its own territory at the 3-yard line. The Bombers picked up four yards on the first play of the drive before striking gold. Wyatt Hudepohl tossed it out wide to running back Chris Payne on a seemingly innocent play. However, Payne pushed past a couple Saint Ignatius tacklers before following his blockers down the sideline. No Wildcat could catch him, and Payne found his way into the end zone for a 93-yard touchdown run. The Bombers missed the ensuing extra point, setting the score at 6-0 St. Xavier with 7:06 left in the first quarter.
“Give their running back credit, but we missed four tackles on the play,” said Head Football Coach Chuck Kyle ’69. “That just doesn’t happen. We hit him four times, fundamentally, my goodness. That hurt.”
The Bombers’ defense made a big play a couple drives later. BJ Ferguson picked off the Wildcats with just over a minute left in the first quarter. The Bombers assumed possession at their own 21-yard line but the drive, which stretched into the second quarter, could not capitalize on the turnover.
An unsuccessful Wildcats possession sent the ball back to the Bombers. The vaunted Saint Ignatius defense then notched its second of three turnovers in the first half. Chris Velotta Jr. intercepted a pass across the middle, returning it to the St. Xavier 26-yard line.
The Wildcats could not find the end zone, but Rory McConville still made the Bombers pay, converting a 35-yard field goal. His sixth field goal of the year narrowed the deficit to 6-3.
The teams exchanged the ball before the Bombers drove down the field in the final minutes of the half. Wyatt Hudepohl completed a few beautiful passes, including a 32-yard circus completion to Liam Clifford on third down. On the eighth play of the drive, Hudepohl lofted a 16-yard touchdown pass to Marshall Lang for a touchdown score. Joe Sullivan’s PAT sent the lead to double digits, 13-3.
On the following drive, the Wildcats fumbled the ball. The turnover did not hurt the Cats, however, as Tommy Eichenberg forced a fumble a couple plays later. The critical play gave the Wildcats another shot at narrowing the deficit.
In the final 50 seconds of the half, the Wildcats drove to the end zone. Patrick Delahunty orchestrated a 6-play, 54-yard march to the promised land, utilizing several receivers en route to the end zone. Cmiel hauled in a 14-yard touchdown score on a flag route to complete the drive. McConville hit the extra point, leaving the score at 13-10 Bombers entering the second half.
“We couldn’t get anything going to start the game. We turned the ball over, but once we found our rhythm, we couldn’t be stopped,” Delahunty said. “We played a great game, in the second half especially. The drive at the end of the first half really got us going. We ran the 2-minute offense. Sometimes when go fast, we get into a great rhythm, and that’s where we found our groove, and that led into the second half.”
Each week, the Wildcats work hard on the 2-minute drill. The team takes a unique approach in practice, and it worked out well for the Wildcats.
“We work at it. We do it a little bit differently from a lot of other teams,” Kyle explained. “To me, I don’t need the defense out there for what we do. We do it with no defense out there. It’s all the mechanics and the calls the quarterback has to make. The understanding of when the clock begins and when it stops, things like that, are what we’re trying to teach there. To have the defense there, they get in the way of that drill. I’m the referee, and I’ll say, ‘The clock is stopped until they set the chains. Okay, the chains are set! Whistle!’ It’s something over the years we’ve done well. It comes in handy. It changes momentum.”
In between the first and second half, Kyle had a choice of whether to take the wind in the third quarter or the fourth quarter. On a mild but windy day in Cincinnati, Kyle chose the wind in the fourth quarter.
On the first drive of the quarter, Hudepohl went to work for the Bombers. The junior signalcaller led a 7-play, 68-yard drive down the field. Clifford capped off the drive with a beautiful catch in the back of the end zone on a fade from Hudepohl. The touchdown and then extra point extended the St. Xavier lead to 20-10.
The Wildcats did not panic. Floyd and Delahunty started a march with runs of 16 and 15 yards, setting up the play-action. Cmiel ran a nice post route right down the middle of Ballaban Field, outrunning the defensive back and catching a beauty from Delahunty.
“They were playing man-to-man, and the safeties were moving up over the formation to the boundary, so it was 1-on-1, and we took advantage of it,” Cmiel said. “I get excited when I see no safety – I know it’s me and him, and I know he can’t guard me.”
The touchdown completely turned the momentum of the game, and the strategy, too.
“We took the wind in the fourth quarter. It was debatable, I wasn’t sure,” Kyle said. “Then they took it right away and scored and I was wondering if I did the right thing. Then we drove right into the wind and Connor had the big pass play into the wind. That was huge. Because they’re only up by three, and now we’re going to get the wind.”
The Bombers punted on the following drive before the game turned into a pick party. The Wildcats threw an interception during the next possession, giving the Bombers the ball near midfield. On the next play, the Bombers lofted a deep ball, only to have Jack Kennedy leap in front of the ball for an interception, his second of the year.
With 2:56 left in the third quarter, Delahunty and the methodical Wildcats’ offense got down to business. Utilizing a strong run game and quick out routes to the sidelines for gains of 10 to Nate Conry and 36 to Cmiel, Delahunty led the Wildcats to the Bombers’ 23-yard line by the end of the third quarter.
The Bombers held strong on the first play of the fourth quarter, a third and long, forcing the Wildcats to attempt the field goal. McConville hit the 37-yarder easily to knot the score at 20.
The Wildcats’ defense forced a three-and-out before the Saint Ignatius offense took full control of the game.
Floyd pounded the ball on four straight plays to begin the drive. Delahunty then completed a 6-yard pass to Cmiel before Floyd gritted out 4 yards on the next two carries. All of the runs caused the Bombers’ safeties to cheat up on the run, giving Cmiel single coverage on the outside. The junior burned the Bombers for not having a safety over the top, hauling in a 35-yard completion from Delahunty to the 1-yard line.
Three plays after the big play-action pass, Delahunty rolled out on a naked bootleg and found Aidan Wells for a critical 4-yard touchdown completion. The Wildcats practiced the play all week, and executed to perfection.
“We just put that in this week. It’s a play-action goal line play, and it worked,” said Delahunty. “We ran the ball two straight times, and it didn’t work. Then we ran the play we just put in, and, bam, touchdown.”
The final 4:30 turned out to be eventful. The Wildcats forced a quick three-and-out and a Bombers punt, taking over the ball at their own 39-yard line. Thanks to a gritty run game, the Wildcats maneuvered down the field, converting a key third down on a Delahunty to Cmiel pass for 25 yards at the sideline.
The Wildcats forced the Bombers to burn all of their timeouts and run down the clock, and attempted to ice it with 40 seconds left. However, the Wildcats could not convert the field goal, giving the Bombers one last chance to tie it.
St. Xavier completed a couple passes, and received a little bit of extra time on the clock due to an error, but could not find the end zone. On the last play of the game, Hudepohl hurled it deep on a desperation pass, but Merick Hartley intercepted it to end the contest.
On the day, the Wildcats allowed 346 total yards, the most since Week 2. But the unit, led by Defensive Coordinator Ryan Franzinger ’02, forced five St. Xavier turnovers – four interceptions and one fumble. As per usual, Eichenberg led the team in tackles, with nine, adding a forced fumble and a fumble recovery.
On offense, Floyd tallied 72 yards, Delahunty notched 49, and Welcsh added 29. Delahunty enjoyed a great day in the passing game, completing 20-of-28 passes for 311 yards (a career-high) and 3 touchdowns. The senior signalcaller thrived on a banner day for the offense. Cmiel also flourished, with a career-best 7 catches for 187 yards.
“This really gets our confidence up, knowing we can rally with teams,” Delahunty said.
The Wildcats now must get healthy before the playoffs, as the team is dealing with a number of injury issues at various positions. However, clinching a playoff spot is clutch for the Wildcats.
With both Saint Ignatius and St. Edward having clinched playoff spots, the Wildcats can focus on winning The Game without worrying about jockeying for a spot in the postseason.
“With this win, we’re in the playoffs. We’re still going to play our hearts out to win the game, but it’s nice to feel it’s not a pressure right now to win,” Kyle said. “We can just play this game hard. It’s not a game where everything comes down to that. That’s a good thing. We’ll just play. We’ve proven we’re a playoff caliber team, to beat the three Cincinnati teams. All of them are really good, and that’s good. That’s playoff-caliber football.”