Van Wert junior Justice Tussing (20) carries the ball into the open field during the Cougars’ 31-28 win at Eggerss Stadium on Friday night. Tussing scored twice and racked up 119 rushing yards on 26 carries in the contest. (DHI Media/Jerry Mason)
Van Wert junior Justice Tussing (20) carries the ball into the open field during the Cougars’ 31-28 win at Eggerss Stadium on Friday night. Tussing scored twice and racked up 119 rushing yards on 26 carries in the contest. (DHI Media/Jerry Mason)

DHI Media Sports Editor

VAN WERT — What began looked like a laugher turned into a battle to the closing seconds, but a Van Wert defense that bent throughout the game stiffened when it needed to, and the Cougars knocked off Elida 31-28 on Friday night.

Van Wert opened its homecoming game at Eggress Stadium and wasted little time in getting the party started. Just three snaps into the contest, junior quarterback Colin Smith dropped back and threw a deep ball to speedster Nick Krugh up the left sideline. Krugh breezed past the Bulldog corner and caught the ball in stride. No one would come close to catching the all-conference track star and the play went for a 71-yard touchdown.

After a Bulldog punt, the Cougars scored again, this time using the ground attack. Justice Tussing picked up 13 yards on a third-and-10 to keep the drive moving, the Smith scrambled for nine yards on a fourth-and-6 from the Elida 23. After Smith hit Krugh again for a 10-yard gain, Tussing found pay dirt with a 3-yard run off tackle, making it 14-0.

The Cougars extended their lead on a Gavin Gardner 26-yard field goal early in the second quarter Jacob Kelly’s interception of Elida quarterback Logan Alexander gave the Cougars the ball back at their own 43.

It took Van Wert just three plays to score again, with Tussing breaking off a 26-yard run off tackle and Smith rolling out and finding Krugh on a deep slant for a 29-yard touchdown.After Gardner’s extra-point, Van Wert led 24-0 with 5:53 left in the first half.

That’s when Elida began its comeback.

The Bulldogs took to the ground, recognizing finally the Cougar defensive philosophy of taking away star wide out Clark Etzler. Alexander and tailback Cole Harmon ran the read-option time and time again, and routinely found success up the middle. For a Cougar defense that has been stout versus the run this year, Elida’s onslaught was surprising, but just what the Cougar coaching staff was hoping for.

“It was kind of a catch-22,” Van Wert head coach Keith Recker said. “If we played one way, we were going to give up the pass and we didn’t want 8 (Etzler) to get open. If we play another way, they’ll be able to run it on us, and we gave them the run. It chewed up the most clock.”

The Bulldogs got on the board with an Alexander 3-yard run with 2:53 to play in the second quarter and forced a quick 3-and-out by the Cougars. The Bulldogs, who were set to receive the second-half kickoff, started another march as the quarter drew to a close, knowing a score would put them right back in the game. Facing a fourth-and-1 at the Cougar 14, Elida abandoned the run and went to the air, but came up empty and the Cougar defense held.

“That was huge. We needed that stop,” Recker explained. “The defense was able to step up that time and did a heck of a job. That was huge to get a 17-point lead at the half.”

Undaunted, the Bulldogs scored to open the third quarter, but5 it took them nearly six minutes of game action to do so. Even so, Elida had chipped away and now trailed 24-14 when the Cougars got back to work offensively.

The Cougars used an 11-play drive that chewed up just over five minutes of clock and spanned 74 yards. Tussing took it in for the one on a fourth-and-goal play to re-build the Cougar lead at 31-14.

“Our offense was able to put together a big drive,” Recker added. “I’m real proud of the way the offense played tonight. I thought we did some good things.”

Again, Elida would respond.

Staying strictly on the ground, Alexander directed another scoring drive, this one highlighted by a 23-yard run by Harmon to set up a 1-yard dive by the quarterback and a 31-21 score with just under ten minutes of clock remaining.

With a chance to seal the game, the Cougars instead went backward and turned the ball over on a fumble; Van Wert’s only turnover of the contest. Elida needed a quick score and they got one, with Alexander finding Brian Upshaw on a quick out before Harmon went in from six yards out to pull Elida to within three.

After another stalled Cougar drive, the Bulldogs had a chance to take the lead, taking over with 5:06 to play.

Elida drove to the Cougar 43 but faced a fourth-and-6 with under three minutes to go. Alexander looked to pass, but Van Wert overloaded the left side and Chandler Adams and Nolan Smith got pressure and brought Alexander down for the sack.

“We decided to go man across and bring the blitz,” Recker said. “We doubled (Etzler), hoping they didn’t have enough time to look for him, and they didn’t. Big play by Chandler to get that fourth-down stop.”

The Cougars officially sealed the game when Keagon Hardmon picked off Alexander’s last-second deep ball as the clock expired.

Elida’s Etzler was held to just two catches and one carry, totaling 51 yards of offense.

“He’s been getting a lot of touches, and we knew our best shot was to keep it out of his hands,” Recker explained. “We did that. Win by three or win by 30, a win is a win, so we’ll take it.”


Elida 0 7 7 14- 28

Van Wert 14 10 7 0- 31

Passing yards- Elida 162, Van Wert 159; Rushing yards- Elida 216, Van Wert 124; Total yards- Elida 378, Van Wert 283; First downs- Elida 21, Van Wert 13; Turnovers- Elida 2, Van Wert 1

Passing comp-att yrds

Alexander (E)- 13-for-23 162 2 INT, C. Smith (VW) 7-for-11 159 2 TD

Rushing carries-yards

Alexander (E)- 22-100 3 TD; Harmon (E) 17-119 TD; Etzler (E) 1-11; C. Smith (VW) 9-5; Tussing (VW) 26-119 2 TD

Receiving catches-yards

Moran (E) 5-46, Upshaw (E) 3-35, Etzler (E) 2-43, Stinson (E) 2-40; Krugh (VW) 5-126 2 TD, Hardmon (VW) 1-23, Stoller (VW) 1-13