HENRIETTA TWP. — In the locker room Friday night with a tie score and a steady rain falling, Keystone coach Rob Clarico had a talk with his offensive linemen.
They believed they could run the ball right down Firelands’ throats in the second half and put away the game.
Clarico listened and turned running back Tyler Polen loose throughout the third quarter. Polen, who finished with 119 yards and two touchdowns on 18 carries, picked up most of his yardage in the third quarter and helped the Wildcats put together two marathon touchdown drives.
Those two scores were enough to help Keystone spoil Firelands’ Homecoming festivities and win 26-20 in a key Patriot Athletic Conference Stars Division game.
Polen had to leave the game for good with 4:44 left in the third quarter with a sprained ankle. But his backup, fellow senior Clay Hartley, picked up the slack and continued to pick up big chunks of yards running behind Keystone’s interior linemen.
“The linemen cornered me in the locker room at halftime and said, ‘Coach, we can move the ball on these guys. Just let us do it,’” Clarico said. “We went to our power play, which is our signature run play, and just got in that double-tight (end) formation and ran power-right, power-right, power-left, power-left, power-right, and went down the field two times.
“That’s a credit to them because they have a lot of confidence in themselves. We were in our tempo mode, and we would run a play and run right back to the line. Even though it was all running, it was at a high tempo, and I think that wore (Firelands) down a little bit.”
Keystone (5-1, 1-0) only attempted one pass in the second half, and it was a good one. On third-and-goal from the 8 on the first play of the fourth quarter and the 15th play of a 61-yard scoring drive, quarterback Denny Szalai play-faked to Hartley and found Kentucky recruit C.J. Conrad open in the end zone for what turned out to be the winning points.
“It’s funny, because I had that in the back of my mind the whole time,” Clarico said. “I kept thinking, ‘When am I going to call the play-fake and throw it down the seam?’ When I called it, both my fullback and one of my linemen came to me and said, ‘That’s what I was thinking.’ I’m not sure how many people were caught off-guard if my fullback and lineman knew we were going to do it, but it worked.”
Polen, who was held to 56 yards on eight carries in the first half, was told of the plan at halftime and was pumped.
“We had some bad turnovers on offense in the first half, and that’s uncharacteristic of us,” Polen said. “That’s not Keystone football. Our defense was struggling in the first quarter and we just weren’t ready to play.
“We punched them in the mouth just before halftime, but we were still having our problems on offense. So, at halftime, Coach looked at me and said, ‘We’re going to give them a heavy dose of Polen right now.’ I said, ‘All right.’”
Firelands (4-2, 0-1) put together two scoring drives in the first quarter to take a 13-7 lead. Quarterback Brad Thrasher, who gained 71 tough yards on 21 carries, scored all three Falcons touchdowns.
His last score came with 2:06 left from 4 yards, capping an eight-play, 65-yard drive. But the Falcons were flagged for touching the onside kick before it went the mandatory 10 yards, and the Wildcats were able to run out the clock.
“The kids battled all game and they fought,” Firelands coach Mike Passerrello said. “They never stopped. Keystone controlled the ball in the second half, and when we were finally able to get the ball, we got a score in. But it just wasn’t enough.
“I’m very proud of them for how they played tonight. We’ll never accept losing, but they came in and played their hearts out and the game was decided by six points. With the weather coming through, both teams tried to be physical and run the football. There wasn’t much passing in the second half, and there really didn’t need to be.”
Contact Dan Gilles at 329-7135 or firstname.lastname@example.org.