FREMONT - A punch in the mouth was just what Toledo Central Catholic needed.
And it's just what it got Friday night at Don Paul Stadium in Fremont.
But like any good heavyweight fighter, it got back up and punched back.
And punched again.
And punched again.
And when it was over, it was Columbian laying outside the Division III playoff ring and the Irish advancing in pursuit of a title, 42-13.
"We needed it. We needed to be punched in the mouth a little bit. Our games in the last month have been a little one-sided and that's good, but this is playoff time now," Central Catholic coach Greg Dempsey said. "You're facing great teams every week and we needed to see what that was like and be able to respond to it."
The Irish (12-0) move on to the regional final next Friday against Clyde, who beat Perkins 19-6.
"Physically, we're as good as anybody. In the physical part of the game, I thought we won that battle, but, man, they're just so skilled. Their speed at receiver, obviously their quarterback and their cover guys in the secondary are pretty good too," Columbian coach Brian Colatruglio said. "We definitely fought with them and we were able to match them physically but their skill kind of got us there in the second half."
For nearly three quarters, Columbian (10-2) hung with the Irish (12-0), trailing just 21-13 in the waning minutes of the third quarter.
The Irish were driving toward another score when Ross Pauly stepped in front of a DeShone Kizer pass to and returned it to the Columbian 40.
But three plays later, Marcus Winters jumped a Columbian pass at the 50 and saw nothing but green field in front of him. It made it 28-13 with 38 seconds to go in the third quarter.
"Marcus Winters made a huge play on defense and gave us a spark and we flowed from there," Dempsey said. "We've been a big play team and (the Tornadoes) are very disciplined in trying (to keep us) from making too many big plays. And we needed somebody to step up and Marcus was the guy tonight on both sides of the ball."
Colatruglio tipped his cap to Winters.
"That was a great athletic play by a really good player," he said.
After forcing Columbian into a three-and-out on the Tornadoes ensuing possession, the Irish used just three plays before they were in the end zone again with Tre'Von Wade zooming 75 yards for a score and a 35-13 lead.
After another stymied Columbian drive, the Irish put the finishing punch in with a heavy dose of Wade on a 12-play, 56-yard drive that finished with Winters snagging a throwaway pass from Kizer at the back of the end zone for a 42-13 lead with 3:36 to go in the game.
"He said he was throwing the ball away and it looked like it, so I caught it and got my toe in," Winters said.
But Winters wasn't done. The defensive back, who doesn't start on defense, picked off Walker again to ice the game.
"They were a great football team. We knew they were going to do in this football game and that's what they did. They're a big physical team. They were going to test us and that's exactly what happened," Dempsey said. "They played a great game and we were just able to make some big plays late in the third and into the fourth quarter."
Columbian had its best success in the first half by dusting off a playbook that Tornadoes fans would have recognized the last couple of years when Jack Jacoby played. Columbian employed a lot of Wildcat formations with direct snaps to Ryan Lynch.
"They're going to play the same no matter what. They're going to line up all those guys in there and play, no matter if you have a quarterback or not so we tried to play and even the numbers a little bit by using Ryan snapping the ball," Colatruglio said. "That was our plan. We had to possess the ball and keep it out of their hands. You saw how explosive they were."
The senior back had great success with the play calls too, rushing for 117 yards on 23 carries in the first half.
"We were just aggressive. We wanted it," Lynch said. "Our line was doing everything good and Central Catholic hasn't had a team run down its throat all year."
But some halftime adjustments by the Irish nipped that in the bud. Lynch gained just 18 more yards on 10 carries in the second half.
"They came out in that Wildcat and the coaches went in (at halftime) and made some adjustments and made sure our gaps were taken care of and fixed some things on some blitzes and the kids did a great job of taking those adjustments and executing them," Dempsey said.
Columbian had its best success on offense in the first half. The Irish scored on a 4-yard run from Kizer just over two minutes into the game before the Columbian stalled out on its first drive of the game.
But a fumble recovery by Codey Chance on the Central Catholic 32 was just the spark Columbian needed.
"They haven't turned over very often this year and that's what we needed to do to stay in the game," Colatruglio said.
"That was huge. It pretty much made our night," Lynch said of the fumble recovery.
Six plays later, including a fourth-down conversion, and Columbian was tied with the Irish at 7. Walker found an open Josh Flint for an 18-yard touchdown pass.
The Irish came right back down the field. Led by Notre Dame-bound Kizer, the Irish used a little more than four minutes to drive 55 yards. This time Kizer went to the air, hitting favorite target Jermiah Braswell for a 14-yard score.
Columbian responded with a score of its own. Lynch carried the ball all six plays of the 72-yard drive, with the final carry being a 48-yard touchdown run. He said he sensed he was close to breaking a big one prior to that run.
"I could see daylight but right when I'd see daylight, somebody would have my legs and I'd just see 45 (Chris Green), that huge linebacker, just coming, hunting for my head. There wasn't much I could do but lean into it and (fight for extra yards)," Lynch said.
But the extra point was blocked by a streaking Tejuan James, leaving Columbian down 14-13.
Illustrating its quick strike ability, the Irish scored three plays later, with Wade punching it in from 5 yards out to give the Irish a 21-13 lead it carried into half.
The Columbian defense held Kizer to 189 yards passing and two passing TDs, but also two interceptions. He came into the game with just three picks all year.
"We did a great job of causing turnovers. Honestly that was going to be our best chance of getting stops, is to cause those turnovers and we did a good job of that," Colatruglio said. "Our defense got the ball twice or three times in the third quarter where we had a chance to go out there and tie the game. We had to finish one of those drives and we didn't."
Wade finished with 192 yards on 27 carries and Kizer had 50 yards on the ground.
Walker went 7 for 23 for 127 yards passing with a score and two interceptions. Lynch finished the night with 135 yards on 33 carries.
It also marked the end of the road for Columbian's 14 seniors, which was Colatruglio's incoming class when he took over the helm for the Tornadoes.
"This group is special to me. It's a really close group. I had a lot of fun coaching this team. They're great kids. They work their butts off. This is the best practice team I've had in the four years I've been here," Colatruglio said. "This is the best effort team. We never had to worry about them giving us effort. They did it every single day and that came out of our seniors."