LAGRANGE — With all the cards on the table and both teams all in, Black River came up with a pair of aces and won the Patriot Athletic Conference Stars Division title Friday.
Behind Andrew Vaughn and Austin Phillips, the Pirates knocked off Keystone 34-7 to earn the outright division title for the second time in three seasons.
Black River (6-4, 6-1 PAC) won Friday with an old-fashioned running game and a defense that finally played to its potential.
With Vaughn (28 carries, 128 yards, three touchdowns) and Phillips (18, 120, two) grinding out yards and eating huge chunks of time off the clock, the offensive line came into its own at the right time to grind down the Wildcats (5-5, 4-3).
“They had to fire it up,” Black River coach Al Young said of his linemen. “They kept getting better as the game went on, and I think we started to wear them down, especially in the second half. They meshed real well with the backs and I am happy with them.”
Black River had two monster 80-yard drives, with each coming at a critical point.
“That’s the kind of drives you need to take their fire away,” Phillips said. “That wears down a defense, and their players go both ways and it tires them out. We just needed to keep running right over them with those long drives. It wears them out.”
The first came after a 37-yard field-goal attempt by Turner Giesel — it would have pulled Keystone within 6-3 — came up short.
The Pirates had the ball for 17 plays, ran 8:09 off the clock and converted three times on fourth down. The last of the latter was a 6-yard TD run by Phillips on fourth-and-5. His 2-point conversion run made it 14-0.
“Fourth down is where you need to make a play,” Vaughn said. “You have got to be a player, and our line dug deep and blew open some holes. You only need a foot or two, and it’s all mental toughness from there.”
Big drive No. 2 came a few possessions after the Wildcats finally found the end zone on a 13-yard touchdown pass from Marcus Gunter (4-for-14, 70 yards) to C.J. Conrad.
The 15-play, 80-yard drive also had three fourth-down conversions, took 7:54 off the clock and seemed to completely deflate Keystone. Vaughn capped it with a 16-yard run, pushing the lead to 20-7 with just 6:12 remaining.
Black River converted seven of eight fourth-down attempts overall, and all seven successes came on scoring drives.
“The way the conditions were with a 25 mph wind blowing in your face and it’s raining, at best you’re going to get a 15-, 20-yard punt,” Young said. “We had a couple of them where we just needed 6 or 7 inches to get a first down. I had confidence in our line.”
The longest conversion was a fourth-and-6 pass from Vaughn, who did his best Tim Tebow impersonation, throwing to Phillips on a 29-yard jump pass that kept a first-quarter scoring drive alive.
Vaughn and Phillips each scored in the last five minutes of the game on their longest runs of the night. They further demonstrated how the Pirates wore down the Keystone defense. Vaughn scored from 21 yards and Phillips burst up the middle for 35 yards.
“What can you say about those guys?” Young said. “They have done it for years, and they just keep getting better all the time. You’ve got Andrew coming back with that whole offensive line (next year), and I think that bodes well for him and the rest of those backs. But we’re going to miss the big fella (Phillips) because he’s a load and he’s been playing hurt for a long time with that back.”
The Black River defense was just as impressive, particularly in the second half. The Pirates allowed 185 yards, with just 15 coming in the second half, when Keystone had minus-3 on the ground.
“I wish there was a Week 11,” Young said. “I feel like we’re just hitting our stride. Defensively, we’re playing probably as well as we’ve been for years.”
In addition to his rushing, Vaughn spent much of the night manned up on Conrad, who came into the game with 57 receptions, 897 yards, and 13 TDs. He limited the standout wide receiver to two catches for 27 yards.
“We watched him on film all week,” Vaughn said. “That’s the guy that killed most of those teams when they came back and won those games late. We knew he was going to make some plays, but our coaches told us all week to be more physical than he is and get up on him. We hammered him all night.”
Contact Chad Grant at firstname.lastname@example.org.