Dragons clinch a share of G-MAC title

JaQuan Hardy was not about to be denied.

On third-and-five at the Hillsdale 33, Hardy took the handoff and was stuffed up the middle.

He bounced to the right and was denied there, but kept moving.

Hardy eventually reversed field and picked up 12 yards for a first down.

“To be honest, I wasn’t even thinking,” Hardy said. “I was just trying to make a play. I was happy to be up and I was trying to score.”

Nick Watson scored on a fourth-down conversion play later in the drive to put Tiffin up two scores.

The Dragons never trailed Saturday and picked up a crucial 35-24 win over Hillsdale to clinch a share of the Great Midwest Athletic Conference championship.

“Hillsdale is such a well-coached football team and they play so hard,” Tiffin coach Cris Reisert said. “We knew it was going to be this type of game. We knew we were going to have to scratch and claw and just persist.”

No. 25 Tiffin improved to 8-1 overall and 6-0 GMAC. The Dragons will get the chance to win the title outright Saturday when they travel down State Route 224 to face Findlay (7-3, 5-1).

“We are right on schedule,” Reisert said. “We are excited with where we are at and we want to keep it going next week. We are right where we expected to be.”

A 14-yard touchdown run by Watson on 4th-and-3 and an extra point by AJ Nickoli pushed the Dragons ahead, 28-17. The Tiffin defense continued its exceptional second-half play when they stopped Hillsdale (6-4, 4-2) on a fourth-down attempt on the next drive. It was the second time the Chargers were denied on fourth down in the third quarter.

“I thought our defense played spectacular,” Reisert said. “Our defense played really good. I thought our defense kept us in the game the whole time.”

Another huge sequence came right at the beginning of the fourth quarter. After a turnover by Tiffin, the Chargers started at the Dragons’ 39, but Tiffin forced another turnover on downs. After two short runs, Watson found Stanley Jackson on a slant and one move later, he was off to the races for a 64-yard touchdown and 35-17 lead.

“We needed to get Stanley in space,” Reisert said. “Hillsdale had a really good plan for him and they did some good stuff. We needed an opportunity to get him the football and when we did, he did something with it.”

Hillsdale quarterback Luke Keller completed five of seven passes on the final drive that resulted in a touchdown pass. Before that, he was just 7 of 21 for 101 yards.

“I thought our guys kept swinging,” Reisert said. “We did not go with the ebbs and flows of the game. I think we overcame a lot of self-inflicted wounds and it was cool to see them keep battling.”

Each team opened the game by forcing a turnover — The-Moor Kelly grabbing the interception for Tiffin. That gave the Dragons good field position and a 24-yard run by Hardy got Tiffin in scoring range. Two plays later, Watson scored from five yards out and it was 7-0 with 10:17 left in the first quarter.

A big kickoff return by Hillsdale gave the Falcons good field position, but the Dragons played tough defense and limited the Chargers to a 27-yard field goal.

The Dragons had the answer though in the form of Hardy and Watson. Hardy had carries of 18 and 12 yards while Watson picked up 12 and 11 yards. In the end, Hardy rumbled in from a yard out to make it 14-3. Hardy broke teammate Kyle Brunson’s school record for touchdowns in a season as he now has 13.

“JaQuan is a stud,” Reisert said. “He is a good player and our line is blocking their tails off. That dude is a different cat. He is playing good football and we are trying to feed him and get him the rock.”

Tiffin forced a punt from Hillsdale, but a fair catch on a punt set the Dragons up at its own 4. Watson fumbled on the first play and David Graham scored from two yards out on the next play.

Each team punted but Tiffin got a short field and took advantage. Hardy exploded for 19 yards and later, added 10 yards to the 1-yard line. He then scored on the next play and the Dragons led, 21-10.

Hardy finished with 23 carries for 192 yards.

“God is good and that is how I see it,” Hardy said. “At the end of the day, we know what we can do. We know what to expect.”

Graham was held to 76 yards on 23 attempts.

“We stopped the run,” Reisert said. “We knew going in that we are going to have to do that. We held their best player to 3.3 yards per rush. Anytime you do that against a team like Hillsdale that wants to run the football, you really monopolize what they want to do.”

Tiffin has historically struggled against Findlay, but Reisert thinks that could be different this year.

“The cool thing about us is it is just another week,” Reisert said. “It is our next chance to go 1-0. Our guys have practiced great for the last nine weeks and they will do it again.”