DOVER - Only three plays and seven yards separated the Indian Valley and Steubenville offenses in the first half of Friday's Division IV Region 13 championship.
The similarities went beyond the stat sheet, too. Both teams were aggressive on fourth down tries and fairly successful.
"Both defenses were playing pretty solid in the first half," said Indian Valley coach Matt Lancaster. "We felt like we could go for it, as I'm sure the same is for Steubenville, and that we could rely on our defense."
SACKED — Big Red's Johnnie Blue records a sack on Indian Valley’s final possession of the evening at Dover’s Quaker Stadium.
A pass interference call aided the Braves' first drive as they were facing a fourth down with four yards to go. Five plays later, Jake Davis scored on a 1-yard drive to answer Big Red's 15-play, 67-yard drive on its first possession.
Steubenville was successful on a fourth and four play on the 50-yard line of that drive after Mandela Lawrence-Burke ran for a seven yard gain.
"They moved the ball extremely well on that drive and we knew from the start we had to match them," Lancaster said.
On Indian Valley's next possession, facing a fourth and eight on the Steubenville 32, Brady Byers hit Logan Ryan for a 31-yard passing play that took Indian Valley to the 1-yard line. It would score on the next play, another pound by the 5-foot-9, 210-pound Davis.
Big Red's next fourth down decision came after a seven play drive was stalled when Lawrence-Burke was sacked for an eight yard loss which took it out of Braves' territory. A 22-yard pass from Lawrence-Burke to Lucas Herrington didn't make it to the chains, setting up another successful fourth down. This time, though, the points came from kicker John Paul Duff who drilled a 33-yard field goal.
Steubenville gambled twice on fourth down on its first possession of the second half.
It was fourth and four on the Indian Valley 38 with just under seven minutes in the third quarter when Lawrence-Burke, who finished with 50 rushing yards on 16 attempts, found a hole for a five yard gain. Later, Big Red was faced with a fourth and eight on the 32 when Lawrence-Burke's pass to Niko Petrides fell just short, giving possession back to the Braves.
But the Big Red defense held strong and forced a punt after just four plays.
"We didn't tackle really well in the first half," said Steubenville coach Reno Saccoccia. "In the second half, we did."
Davis was stopped for a three yard loss after Johnnie Blue's seven yard touchdown run late in the third quarter.
On the same drive, Oko Anyabwile sacked Byers for an 11-yard loss, which forced an Indian Valley punt.
"In our type of offense, negative plays really puts us in a hole," Lancaster said. "Their linebackers were fast and their speed gave us a little trouble. We knew that coming in. We'd be in some trouble when their linebackers started stepping up.
"They took advantage of that and got the job done."
The Braves punted just once in the first half, a 49-yard boot by Byers, which pinned Big Red on its own 2-yard line in the final minute of the second quarter. But in the second half, they punted on the first three of its four possessions.
That fourth possession came down to a critical fourth down play, as well. Byers threw an incomplete pass, ran for four yards and tosses a screen pass to Ryan for a two yard loss.
It came to fourth and eight on the Steubenville 36-yard line. The clock ticked under the 1:00 minute mark and Byers dropped back looking to pass. Instead of finding an open receiver, he came face-to-face with Blue and the green turf of Crater Stadium. Blue recorded the sack and forced a fumble.
Blue also led a fourth down charge on the earlier fourth quarter with a three yard run on a fourth down and one play from the Big Red 37. The sophomore running back had 172 yards on 20 carries, with a long of 50.
"I just felt that the kids did a great job," Saccoccia said. "We shut them out."
It's a positive trend for Steubenville, which has only allowed six points in the second half of its three playoff games. Big Red shutout Licking Valley in the second half in Round 1 and just surrendered a one yard running touchdown to Maysville in Round 2.
"We knew what they had done," Lancaster said. "We've been a strong second half team, too. We just didn't get it done in the second half. They did some things to cause some negative plays for us. Credit to them. They're well-coached and a very good football. We'll hold our heads high."
Big Red turns its attention to a state semifinal match with Youngstown Cardinal Mooney, which beat Cleveland Benedictine 28-21 in Solon.
Strong fourth down plays again may just lead Steubenville to its fourth state championship.