Dragons get past elusive rival Findlay, secures berth in playoffs
FINDLAY — Quarterback Nick Watson has used the same word a few times to describe the Tiffin University football team.
“Showtime,” Watson said again after the Dragons defeated Findlay 52-45 in Saturday’s regular-season finale. “It’s not done yet.”
In fact, it’s moving to a premium tier.
Watson ran for two touchdowns and threw for three more, receivers Stanley Jackson and Carey graduate Gavin Woods each had more than 100 yards receiving, and Tiffin piled up 528 yards of total offense.
But perhaps the biggest reason the Dragons are outright Great-Midwest Athletic Conference champions, and will make their first Division II playoff appearance next week, is the play of tailback JaQuan Hardy.
Hardy, who has been overpowering, was dominant Saturday. He carried the ball 25 times for 207 yards and a touchdown.
“You can’t hold us all,” Watson said. “You might try to stop JaQuan as much as you want, but we’ve got a lot of weapons on our offense.”
Findlay couldn’t hold Hardy. It had enough trouble tackling him.
When asked to put all of Saturday’s events into perspective — beating Findlay for the first time in 26 years, winning the program’s first outright G-MAC title and clinching a playoff spot — Hardy appeared to take it in stride.
“There’s a first for everything,” he said. “So at the end of the day, I’m not surprised. At the end of the day, I just keep praying, and wish for the best, and keep grinding.”
That’s bad news for whichever defense the Dragons go against next week.
“He makes a defender look like he’s in the right fit, but then they’ve got to make the tackle,” Watson said. “So, that’s what it boils down to. It’s hard to tackle that guy.”
The Dragons improved to 9-1, 7-0 in the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. Then they celebrated on the field of Donnell Stadium, the home of the team that has been a thorn in their side for decades.
To do it, the Dragons needed to withstand a late Findlay push.
With 8 seconds left in the third quarter, Watson threw a 9-yard strike to Woods in the right side of the end zone, which pushed Tiffin’s lead to 52-30.
“We practice that all the time,” said Woods, who finished with seven catches for 106 yards. “It’s just a connection between me and Nick, and it’s worked out the way we wanted it to.”
For the Dragons, it was their seventh touchdown. But it also marked the final time they scored Saturday.
Behind red-hot quarterback Matt Winzeler, Findlay (7-4, 5-2) stormed back. It got a 29-yard touchdown pass from Winzeler to Marlin Richardson, and a 1-yard score by Derek Lynch with five minutes left to cut the Dragons lead to 52-45.
The Dragons’ offense followed with a three-and-out, and David Orlando punted the ball back to the Oilers. The TU punter’s 29-yard effort gave Findlay the ball at its own 38 with 3:22 left.
What looked like a certain TU victory a few minutes earlier was suddenly hanging by a thread.
“You know what? It’s college football,” Tiffin coach Cris Reisert said. “They have scholarship players too, they’re gonna score points.”
Winzeler hit Richardson to move the Oilers to midfield, then tailback Nate Slagel escaped for a 17-yard run inside the Tiffin 40.
The home crowd reached a fevered pitch. But from the sideline, Watson remained calm.
“I was just staying composed,” he said. “I have all trust in our defense. They’ve been great all year. … I knew they were gonna go out and make plays.”
TU defensive end Latrell Robinson did just that, burying Slagel in the backfield for a 4-yard loss. The next two plays netted 2 yards, setting up a fourth-and-12 from the 35 with a minute and a half on the clock.
“The key was just to hold our composure, keep doing what we always do,” said Tiffin DB Carrington Contee, who led the team with eight tackles. “We had guys step up and make plays that usually aren’t out there, but that’s what we depend on each other for.”
On the fourth-down play, Winzeler appeared to have Tanner Schroeder open over the middle, but his pass fell incomplete.
Tiffin had the ball with 1:27 on the clock.
But the game wasn’t over. Findlay still had all three timeouts.
Hardy went to Reisert before the offense went back on the field.
“I said, ‘Let’s seal this game. Let’s win,'” Hardy said. “He’s like, ‘All right, I’m gonna put the ball in your hands, do what you got to do.’ He did that. He trusts me.”
Hardy rewarded that trust by taking the first-down carry, breaking a series of tackles and driving 12 yards.
Tiffin had a first down.
Findlay took its first timeout.
Watson gave the ball to Hardy again. This time, the junior was engulfed in a scrum, as nearly all of the Findlay defenders keyed on him.
But the scrum kept moving.
Five yards, 8 yards, 13 yards.
First down. Game over.
“He’s a stud. Our offensive line bucked up, JaQuan bucked up,” Reisert said. “I think he carried the entire Findlay team on his back on that last play. And it was really fitting, for what he’s been all year. He’s a gamer; he’s a guy who shows up in big games like this.”
He wasn’t the only one. Watson threw for 239 yards, Jackson had a 47-yard completion, and finished with 114 receiving yards.
And they all got a big boost from TU’s players in the trenches.
“It was just fun, you know. I can’t thank my teammates enough, around me, for making me better,” said Woods, who had a 39-yard reception to set up a score. “We couldn’t have done it without our offensive line, our guys up front. Our defense played good to give us that opportunity, and we just did what we had to do.”
Watson got things going with a pair of first quarter touchdown runs, which were sandwiched around a 2-yard touchdown run by Slagel.
Tiffin led 14-7 after one. The Oilers answered that deficit with a pair of second-quarter touchdown passes from Winzeler: a 23-yard screen to Slagel (Findlay missed the extra point) and a 17-yard strike to Richardson. Findlay led 20-14.
Tiffin regained the lead when Hardy went 13 yards for a score with 4:11 left in the half.
And then came the turning point.
Earlier in the game, the Oilers had success returning the Dragons deep kickoffs, and were getting solid field position.
So Reisert said special teams coordinator Mark Spencer suggested the Dragons try something different after Hardy’s score.
Orlando pooched the ensuing kickoff to about the Oilers 20.
No one from Findlay caught it. The ball hit the turf and bounced backward, and the Dragons recovered at the 22.
“They were doing a good job in their return game, so we kind of felt like it was a win-win for us,” Reisert said. “We were gonna get the ball in a manageable position on defense, if we had gotten a cheap (offensive possession), we’ll take that, too.”
Three plays later, on a third-and-goal from the 8, Watson found a wide open Jackson on the left side of the end zone, and Tiffin went up 28-20 with 3:06 left in the half.
And if kicking the ball that way worked so well the first time, why not do it again on the next kickoff?
Again, Findlay didn’t field it, and again, Tiffin got the ball at the Oilers 22.
Findlay coach Rob Keys said kickoff miscues were uncharacteristic of his squad.
“The first one I can see, that happens, you’re going to have those plays,” he said. “The second one, we made adjustments and put different personnel in the game and still made the same mistake.”
This time, the Oilers were able to hold Tiffin, and AJ Nickoli connected on a short field goal with 1:41 left in the half.
In 2 ½ minutes, the Dragons scored 17 points. They led 31-21 at the half.
Tiffin upped its lead when Devin Butler took a handoff from Watson and raced 44 yards for a touchdown. Less than two minutes into the third quarter, and the Dragons were up 18.
Findlay came back with a field goal from Chase Wilcox to make it 38-23, but Tiffin pushed its lead to three touchdowns later in the third when Contee intercepted Winzeler to set up another TU score. This time, it was Jackson. His second touchdowns catch of the game — a 10-yarder — put Tiffin up 45-23.
“Congratulations to Tiffin,” Keys said. “They’re a very, very good team. I said that going in. they’ve proven it all year and they’re outright GMAC champs.”
Tiffin’s defense was led by lineman Charlie Cleveland, who had two tackles for a loss, as did Robinson.
Findlay’s offense was nearly as good as Tiffin’s. In fact, it finished with a yard more in total offense.
Winzeler was brilliant, completing 26 of 45 passes for 427 yards and four touchdowns. Ruben Flowers had five catches for 163 yards, and Richardson had six catches for 100.
But the Oilers running game — which had been a strength all season, was slowed. It finished with 102 yards on the ground, with Slagel running 12 times for 57 yards, and Brian Benson — who came in as the conference’s second-leading rusher — was held to 16 yards on six carries.
“When the offense was producing like they were, it’s easy for the defense to go out there and take control of the game,” Contee said. “When we needed a stop, we got it.”
Meanwhile, the Dragons aren’t about to stop. They’ll find out today who they’ll face in the first round of the playoffs.
“We’re looking forward to the next round, looking forward to next week,” Reisert said. “We’ll be ready. We’ll enjoy this today, and we’ll kind of get back to work tomorrow.”
That celebration is well earned.
Next week, the Dragons will make their D-II playoffs debut.