Published in The Chagrin Valley Times
October 25, 2018
Chardon had 6:56 to drive 98 yards and score a game-winning touchdown on the road against Division III AP No. 1-ranked Kenston, and, by golly, the Hilltoppers found a way to do it on Friday night in Bainbridge.
Not to say that final drive came without controversy, but Kenston wasn’t wasting its time making excuses in defeat.
The Chardon boys (6-3, 5-1) entered the Western Reserve Conference showdown between Geauga County rivals with a four-game win streak and owned the eighth spot in the Region 9 computer rankings. They absolutely needed a win to keep their playoff hopes alive.
Hilltopper senior halfback Jon McKnight did just that on a third-and-goal touchdown run from 3 yards out as time expired for the 27-24 upset victory.
“I mean, it’s one of the greatest feelings I’ve ever had,” McKnight said. “We started 1-3, and we brought it back. We’ve won five straight. So, it just means a lot.”
Chardon now controls its own destiny in the fourth spot of Region 9 with a home game against Eastlake North (2-7, 1-5) this Friday.
The good news for the Bomber gridders (8-1, 5-1) is that they clinched a playoff berth in defeat and still own the top spot in the Region 9 computer rankings. However, they will likely drop to the second spot in the region after a road game against Willoughby South (2-7, 1-5) this Friday – granted Canfield (8-1) takes care of business against Poland Seminary (6-3).
Also, the Kenston boys are now tied atop the WRC standings with Chardon and Riverside instead of having outright ownership of a league banner.
“Eyes up,” Kenston seventh-year head coach Jeff Grubich said to his players in the post-game huddle on Friday night.
“Maybe, just maybe, this is the wake-up call you need, because what we can do is turn a negative into a positive,” he said. “Because, for nine weeks, nine weeks, I’ve been trying to fix the same problem – the same problem. Personal fouls! Penalties! Stuff that we can control! Yet our ego is too big.
“‘Coach don’t know what he’s talking about. It won’t cost us a game. Those penalties won’t cost us a game. I can run my mouth. I can shove after the whistle. He don’t know what he’s talking about. I can go through the motions on Monday. I can go through the motions on Tuesday.’ Coach has got to have an aneurysm on Wednesday to finally get a good practice.”
The Bombers had a personal foul on a Chardon kickoff return that provided the Hilltoppers a 53-yard field for a scoring drive on their first series of the game.
The Bombers had a second personal foul on another Chardon kickoff return to open the second half, again providing the Hilltoppers a 53-yard field and another touchdown possession.
And the Bombers had a third personal foul on Chardon’s final drive of the game, granting the Hilltoppers breathing room to get outside their own 20-yard line for another scoring series.
Not to mention, penalty flags flew after Chardon scored its game-winning touchdown.
“I saw it coming. I don’t like to see that coming,” Grubich said to his players. “What I want to see is a team and a coaching staff that’s just as hungry as they were when they were 2-8 (in 2016), not fat and happy at 8-0, because that’s what we were for three days this week. We all knew everything. We had all the answers. But guess what; we’ve got work to do. So, we’re going to take a negative and turn it into a positive.”
Kenston opened the game on a six-play, 68-yard drive that included a 42-yard catch by senior Bransen Stanley from junior quarterback Jon Tomcufcik down to the Hilltopper 26, before Tomcufcik redialed Bransen on a brilliant cut-back route in the end zone for a 12-yard touchdown and a 6-0 lead.
Chardon responded on a short field – from that first personal foul – when Hilltopper senior quarterback Andrew Kobuszewski, in his first game back from a torn ACL, punched in a 3-yard keeper to take a 7-6 lead with 6:40 left in the opening act. However, Kobuszewski wouldn’t play much beyond that series with a heavy-duty brace on his leg.
“It’s a rivalry game. It’s Ohio State-Michigan. Throw the records out,” Grubich said. “We told our kids all week it was going to be that type of game. And, so, it’s no shock. We knew we were going to be in a dog fight and it was going to be a four-quarter game, and hats off to those kids over there. Those kids over there and their coaching staff, they earned it.”
Senior linebacker Matt Iklodi forced a Chardon punt with a third-down sack to help close out the first quarter, and then the Bombers put together a 13-play drive that concluded with senior kicker Anna Sanders’ 26-yard field goal for a 9-7 upper hand with 9:47 to go in the half.
Kenston’s defense then forced a three-and-out punt, and the Bombers’ offense had to go 57 yards to take a 16-7 upper hand on junior running back Jack Porter’s 10-yard touchdown run with 4:46 left in the half.
But Chardon scored twice to put the pendulum back in its favor, first on a second-and-22 reverse flea flicker from sophomore Brady Toth to senior Jacob Urbic with 1:14 left in the half and then on a 53-yard touchdown run by senior Wade Novack from the Hilltoppers’ wing-T on the first play of the second half for a 21-16 lead.
“You can’t give up big plays. You cannot,” Grubich said. “They’re momentum killers, and they just suck the life out of you. You know, you’re playing great football for 10, 15 plays in a row, and then you give up a touchdown. It sucks the life out of you. So, that’s another thing we’ve got to correct and we’ve got to fix.”
Kenston wasted no time reclaiming the upper hand on the next series, however, when Porter scored on a 6-yard touchdown weave through a gaping hole on the left side. Tomcufcik then connected with Stanley on another cut-back route for the two-point conversion and a 24-21 lead with 8:11 to go in the third quarter.
In the fourth quarter, Chardon was lined up for a 38-yard field goal but instead attempted to pick up 3 yards on a fake to move the chains. Kenston’s special team was all over it and forced the Hilltoppers into a 5-yard loss and a turnover on downs with 9:45 to play.
“That’s a perfect example,” Grubich said. “We were coached up, we were disciplined, and we executed. So, when we do what we’re supposed to do, you know, we’ll be fine. So, we’ve got to find a way to make this into a positive and get better.”
Kenston’s offense gained 26 yards and flipped the field on Tomcufcik’s punt down to the 2-yard line. But the Hilltoppers’ had 6:56 remaining for that final 98-yard drive.
After that third personal foul got Chardon out to its own 31, the Hilltoppers converted a fourth-down run to the 42. The next play, Kenston senior linebacker Joe Staudenbaur nearly intercepted Chardon junior quarterback Max Vujaklija’s pass.
Instead, Chardon went on to convert another fourth-and-two play down to the Kenston 46-yard line. Kenston junior linebacker Logan Vargo then sacked Vujaklija, and the Hilltoppers faced a third-and-13 situation.
Vujaklija dropped back and tossed up a 28-yard pass down the sideline that Kenston senior defensive back Dorion Talley was in position to intercept, but somehow Chardon’s McKnight came up with the reception. Talley pointed to the ground in an effort to convince an official the pigskin hit the turf, but the call stood.
Kenston fans first cheered in reaction to what they thought was an incomplete pass, and then booed when they saw the official run in and signal the completion down to the 21-yard line.
“It is what it is,” Grubich said, not to put blame on the official. “Our DB has got to make a play on the ball. Whether it hit the turf or it’s a catch, it doesn’t matter.”
Chardon went on to convert a third-and-one play down to the 10-yard line and spiked the pigskin with 26 seconds remaining. The Hilltoppers then got down to the 3-yard line with four seconds remaining and called a timeout.
Instead of kicking the field goal to play for overtime, Chardon went for it, and McKnight found room to the outside for the game-winning score, 27-24.
After the game, a Chardon fan asked McKnight if he caught that controversial 28-yard completion earlier in the series, and he said he did in fact get his hand under it.
“I mean, I think that’s just what Chardon does,” McKnight said about the final drive. “We’ve done that in the past, so we were ready for it. And I knew as soon as it said 98 yards, I’m like, we’re doing this again.”
Kenston outgained Chardon, 364 yards to 348 yards, but had 46 more yards of penalties. Neither team committed a turnover.
Tomcufcik finished the night 13-of-25 passing for 191 yards in wet-and-windy conditions, while Porter had 27 carries for 122 yards and Stanley had nine catches for 127 yards.
“Are you going to believe in me now?” Grubich asked his gridders in the postgame huddle. “Are you going to believe in me? Are you going to trust me? Are you going to take the coaching and learn from your mistakes?”
“Yes, sir,” they said and repeated.
“I’m going to tell you right now, if you learn from your mistakes, if you take the coaching, you’re going to be fine,” he said. “You’re going to be better than fine. Wake-up call! The buzzer just went off. I hope you hear it.”
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