Dragons get big plays late to outlast Panthers in G-MAC play

PHOTO BY ZACH BAKER Tiffin University players (from left) Marcus Whitfield, Stanley Jackson and Carey graduate Gavin Woods celebrate after Whitfield’s 30-yard catch and run to the end zone late in the fourth quarter Saturday at Frost-Kalnow Stadium.

It wasn’t an easy game, and it wasn’t always pretty.

But when Tiffin University needed big plays Saturday against Ohio Dominican, it got them.

Quarterback Nick Watson led three fourth quarter touchdown drives — two in the final five minutes — and ran for two scores as the Dragons outlasted the Panthers, 41-31.

Tiffin, which was playing its first home game of the season after three weeks on the road, improved to 3-1, 2-0 in the Great-Midwest Athletic Conference.

“It’s a good start for us,” said Watson, who completed 24 of 39 passes for 326 yards, which included a pair of TD throws. “It’s a start for great things that will happen in the future.”

Early in the fourth quarter, Tiffin appeared to be just barely hanging in against the Panthers. Ohio Dominican seemed to have an answer for everything the Dragons threw at it.

Devanaire Conliffe hauled in a pair of third-quarter touchdown passes that were in excess of 40 yards. When the Dragons appeared to have Ohio Dominican in serious trouble — pinned at its own 2 and facing a third and long on the first play of the fourth quarter — quarterback Evan Ernst lofted a 27-yard pass down the left sideline to Cedric Washington. The Panthers got a field goal out of the drive and went up 24-20.

And then, after Watson galloped 31 yards to the end zone to put Tiffin ahead 27-24 with 9:17 left, the Panthers responded again.

This time, Ernst capped a seven play, 70-yard drive with a six yard keeper to the end zone.

Ohio Dominican led, 31-27, with 5:20 to play.

The Dragons were down, but Watson said they didn’t lose confidence.

“We stay composed,” he said. “We knew we had to make plays, we knew we had to finish the job, and we went out there and did it. We made the right plays, made the right decisions on those plays, and executed very well.”

Tailback JaQuan Hardy was a big part of that.

He carried the ball five times for 56 yards on the ensuing Dragons march. A 23-yard jaunt brought the Dragons to the ODU 9, and a play later, he took a handoff six yards to the 3.

That set up a third and goal with about 2 ½ minutes left. This time, Watson kept the ball, and plowed into the end zone. The Dragons went up 34-31 with 2:22 left.

“I’ve got legs, so I used them,” Watson said.

That also was true of Hardy. In the third quarter, he broke a 65-yard touchdown run (though he appeared to step out of bounds at about the ODU 30, the play continued) and ended up with 29 carries.

The final total: 220 yards, and an average of more than seven yards a pop.

“JaQuan’s been a guy we can turn to in any moment,” said Tiffin coach Cris Reisert. “I’m so proud of the way that he continues to battle. He was dead tired — didn’t blink — just kept going. Wanted to finish the game for his teammates and for his program.”

But the game wasn’t over yet. The Panthers still had two timeouts and more than enough time for one more drive.

But TU senior defensive back Carrington Contee put a stop to that.

“We (the defense) were on the sideline, and we figured if we lose or win it, it’s on us,” said Contee, who made seven tackles Saturday. “Our offense was doing their job.”

The Panthers’ ensuing drive started at their own 25. On first down, Ernst threw a pass to his right, toward the sideline at around the 40.

Contee was there. He jumped the route and picked the ball.

He said the play was about preparation and anticipation.

“Lots of film study, and I (saw) the double outs,” he said. “And I just jumped it, with my gut.”

The Dragons had a massive celebration, but the Panthers still had a chance. They still had two timeouts. If they could hold TU to a field goal — or get a turnover on downs — there was still enough time to make things interesting.

And that’s exactly how things were after Hardy was stopped for a four yard loss and Watson threw an incomplete pass.

Tiffin faced a fourth and 6 from the ODU 29, with less than 90 seconds left. Because of the incompletion on third down, Ohio Dominican retained a timeout.

Reisert opted against trying a 46-yard field goal try — TU kicker AJ Nickoli was 2 of 3 on those Saturday, having one of them blocked. But all three attempts were from a considerably shorter distance.

Instead, the coach left the Tiffin offense on the field. Watson took the snap from the shotgun, and Ohio Dominican came with an all-out blitz.

“They came in in cover zero, and I knew I had an outlet,” Watson said.

All day, the Dragons had been killing the Panthers with hitches. Receiver Stanley Jackson was the usual target — he had 12 catches for 155 yards.

But this time, the outlet receiver was Marcus Whitfield, who to that point in the game had made a single catch for nine yards.

But Watson threw a simple pass to his left, and Whitfield caught it. He then sprinted down the sideline, untouched, to the end zone.

It was the knockout punch the Dragons were looking for.

“(Whitfield’s) a guy who has stepped up every game, and again, the moment was big, and Nick made a great throw, we protected,” Reisert said, “and, gosh, it was fun, man. It was good to see.”

Ohio Dominican fell to 1-2, 1-1 in the G-MAC.

The Panthers got a big game from Ernst, who threw for 290 yards and three touchdowns, and from tailback EJ Colson, who had 14 carries for 88 yards.

Washington finished with six catches for 110 yards, and Conliffe had two catches — both touchdowns — totaling 85.

For the Dragons, they remain home next week, but for a non-conference game against St. Anselm, a school from New Hampshire. Tiffin returns to G-MAC play Oct. 12, when it travels to play Kentucky Wesleyan.

GAVIN’S GOT IT: Gavin Woods, a 6-foot-3 sophomore receiver from Carey, made a big impact Saturday. He caught four passes for 56 yards in the win, but the biggest came in the final seconds of the first half.

With Tiffin trailing 7-6 and facing a fourth-and 2 from the Panther 22, Watson rolled right and lofted a pass that dropped right into Woods’ hands in the back of the end zone.

Fifteen seconds remained until the break. It was Woods’ fourth touchdown of the season.

Woods nearly had another memorable play. Earlier, he returned a punt 85 yards to the end zone for an apparent touchdown, only to see the play called back due to a penalty.

“It was really fun and exciting to get home,” Woods said afterward. “It was our first home game, homecoming, we came out and executed as a team. It was just fun making plays, all around, as a team.”

CLEVELAND ROCKS: Dragons’ redshirt sophomore Charlie Cleveland is establishing himself as one of Division II’s best defensive ends.

His abilities were on display Saturday, as he sacked Ernst twice and finished with three tackles for a loss and seven stops overall.

He also forced a fumble.

“Charlie’s an eraser,” Resiert said. “Charlie’s a guy, when we talk about elite ends, the first thing is effort. You have to have a nonstop motor, and Charlie every day brings it, man. And today was no different. Today he was finally able to get home. He’s been close and close and close, and today, he closed it out.”

BACK HOME: The last time Blaine Swartzmiller was on the Frost-Kalnow Stadium field, he was running over Columbus Grove defenders on his way to a game-winning overtime touchdown for Seneca East in the OHSAA playoffs.

Now, the former Tiger running back is playing on the defensive line for the Panthers. He made two tackles Saturday.