Colin Smith of Van Wert dives on a loose ball after one of several fumbles in their game with Kenton of Friday. (Times Bulletin/Tina Eley)
By John Parent
Times Bulletin Sports Editor
VAN WERT- On a sloppy field at Van Wert's Eggerss Stadium, the Van Wert Cougars and Kenton Wildcats played a sloppy game.
Entering the contest ranked second in the state in the AP high school poll, Kenton's high-powered offense was expected to steamroll the winless Cougars with many predicting a 50 point margin or perhaps even more. The Cougars, then, could probably take some solace in their 32-0 defeat on Friday night.
Just don't tell that to Cougars coach Keith Recker, who knows that the only way to improve his programs is if the kids start expecting to not only play well in games like this, but to win them.
"I though they way we competed was really good, especially in the second half. In the past, we probably would have said 'shut 'er down' and it ends up out of control and we came out and kept fighting and kept competing," coach Recker explained. "But we have to get to a point where we're not happy with a 3-0 score against Kenton and if we get to that point we will be really good."
That second half was one the Cougars might well hang their hat on. Despite trailing big headed into the locker room, the Cougars and Wildcats played to a flat-footed tie in the final 24 minutes of play.
Van Wert showed that they weren't coming in to this contest to be anybody's punching bag. On the opening kick off, the Cougars surprised Kenton with an on-side kick that they were able to recover. Though the drive didn't result in points for Van Wert, Michael Smelser's punt pinned Kenton inside their own 10 yard line.
Kenton's junior quarterback, Grant Sherman, came into the game averaging nearly 400 yards per game through the air, but the sloppy conditions made controlling the football difficult and passing nearly impossible, both because of the wet ball and due to receivers slipping on their routes.
Sherman had his most difficulty connecting on long pass plays, but was able to move the chains a couple of times on their opening drive. A slip screen completed to Kollin Stoller went for a nine-yard gain, but Stoller couldn't hang on to the ball, resulting in the first of what was probably 8-10 fumbles on the game between the two teams. Van Wert's Quincy Salcido was able to fall on the ball in this instance and the Cougars took over at the Kenton 36 yard line.The Cougars handed to Justis Tussing on the first play of the drive and he broke free for a 15 yard gain and two plays later, defensive pass interference gave the Cougars a first-and-10 from just inside the 11 yard line. Quarterback Colin Smith fired a pass to Smelser that appeared to slip through his grasp, but the officials ruled the play a fumble instead of an incomplete pass and the Cougars were turned away.
It would be Van Wert's best opportunity to score.
After holding the Wildcats to a three-and-out, Van Wert got the ball back, but Smith's pass slipped from his hand and was picked off by Kenton's Kuert Lautenschlager, who was able to return the ball to the 11 yard line of the Cougars. Kenton wasted no time in getting into the end zone, when Sherman kept the ball and scampered into the end zone. As is customary for Kenton, the two-point attempt followed and was converted.
After a Smelser fumble was recovered by Kenton's Noah Furbush, the Wildcats coughed up another ball and the Cougars recovered in thir own end zone for the touch back.
Two possessions later, Van Wert was victimized by another questionable call when Sherman dropped to pass only to have the ball squirt free behind him. Instead of a Van Wert recovery at the Kenton 30, the play was ruled incomplete and Kenton kept possession. That proved big because even though the Wildcats punted,m the ball was downed inside the Cougar five yard line and on the next play, Furbush broke into the back field to record the safety.
There is no question that the constant rain on Friday night helped to slow Kenton's offense. The Wildcats managed just 97 passing yards in the first half, but ran the ball effectively,gaining 128 yards on 20 first half carries. Van Wert managed just seven total yards in the opening half.
"The weather was kind of the great equalizer tonight," coach Recker added. "It helped us a bit because we were able to get some turnovers, but it hurt us as well when we turned the ball over."
The second half was littered with more sloppy play, though this time it was due more to penalties than wet conditions. Though Kenton kept hammering away at the ground game - something they don't often use - their drives were stalled by numerous holding and illegal block calls.
While the Cougars couldn't make a dent in the score, they did hold Kenton off the board in the second half and that's thanks, in part at least, to some outstanding play by Tussing, who got into the backfield with regularity and came up with three tackles for losses in the second half. Tussing also provided the majority of the Cougar offense with his ground game.
The loss keeps Van Wert winless at 0-4 (0-3 in WBL play). Kenton remains unbeaten this year.