By Josh Brown
TIPP CITY — Even with only three-tenths of a second on the clock before halftime and Springfield Shawnee surely planning on taking a knee to go into the locker room only down two scores, Tippecanoe’s Matt Garber remained alert, ready for anything.
And he made the Braves pay for not playing it safe.
With :00.3 left in the second quarter, Garber intercepted an ill-advised screen pass and took it 45 yards for a game-changing touchdown, giving the Red Devils a 28-7 halftime lead and killing any momentum Shawnee may have taken into the break. Cole Barhorst did the rest, breaking one of his three touchdown runs on the night in the fourth quarter to put away a 35-7 Red Devil victory Thursday night at Tipp City Park over their old divisional rivals, the Braves.
“I mean, we’ve been so prepared this week,” Garber said. “I saw it, I didn’t even think about it — I just went for it. It landed on my hands and I took it. I didn’t even think about it. It just happened. Watching film this week, the scout team — we were just ready.”
Quarterback Aaron Hughes also added a 25-yard touchdown run as the Red Devil offense piled up 383 yards on the ground and 411 total. Barhorst finished with 235 yards and three scores on 28 carries — 160 yards on 20 carries coming in the first half alone.
But it was Garber’s pick-6 that changed everything.
With Tippecanoe up 21-7, Shawnee (1-1) faced third-and-10 from its own 41-yard line with :00.3 left on the clock — a point of contention with Tippecanoe coach Derge, as he felt time should have ran off the clock on the previous play. But instead of taking a knee and regrouping at halftime, the Braves attempted one last play — and it surprised Derge, and cost Shawnee.
“To be honest with you, yeah,” he said when asked if he thought Shawnee would down the ball. “The previous play, I was kind of upset because I thought the clock should have ran out … but it worked out for us. It definitely surprised me.”
Shawnee quarterback Michael Guyer, who scored the Braves’ lone touchdown on a 45-yard run in the first quarter, dropped back and was immediately pressured by a Tippecanoe blitzer up the middle. Instead of going for the hail mary, he threw a screen pass off his back foot just to get rid of it — and Garber read it the whole way, grabbing it and rumbling 45 yards for a touchdown to give the Devils a 21-point halftime lead.
“Matt’s one of our linebackers. He plays real hard, and he’s a great kid,” Derge said. “He caught it there, Cade Rogers was out in front blocking for him — that’s what we call relentless effort. The kids were out there playing hard until the whistles blows.
“That was the turning point of the game, for sure. It made a big difference. We’re ready to go in at the half up 21-7, and then boom. Big play. The kids overcame some adversity that came their way, and I’m real proud of them.”
Early on, it didn’t seem like the Devils (2-0) would face much adversity against the Braves, their former Central Buckeye Conference Kenton Trail Division rivals who handed them their only regular season loss last year. Tippecanoe took the opening drive of the game 68 yards on 12 plays, with Cole Barhorst carrying the ball on nine of those plays. He finished the drive off, as well, bullying his way into the end zone on an 8-yard touchdown to make it 7-0 Devils with 7:48 left in the first quarter.
Barhorst then showed his breakaway speed on the Devils’ next possession. After the Tippecanoe defense forced a quick three-and-out and the Braves punted it to the Tippecanoe 10-yard-line, Barhorst took the Devils’ second play from scrimmage straight up the gut and would not be caught, an 84-yard touchdown run to make it 14-0 Tippecanoe with 5:21 left in the first quarter.
“Probably running over people,” Barhorst said when asked which way he preferred to score. “That first one, I had guys pushing me from every direction, my teammates pushing me in the back. I’ll take any help I can get. In short yardage, you’re a little less tired. After that first long one, I was a little winded after. First game back (after recovering from an injury), I could definitely tell I was kind of missing out on conditioning stuff … but it felt good to be back.”
But Shawnee would not go away so easily. The Braves took the ensuing drive 76 yards over 10 plays, with Guyer completing 5 of 6 passes on the drive, including a pair of clutch third-down conversions. And on third-and-1 from the Devil 45, Guyer kept an option play and took it up the middle 45 yards for a touchdown to cut Tippecanoe’s lead to 14-7.
The Braves recovered a fumble on the first play of Tippecanoe’s next drive, taking back over at the Devils’ 36 right before the end of the quarter. It was a chance to regain some momentum, but the Devil defense stood tall, stuffing a fourth-and-1 play from its own 15 to give the ball back to Tippecanoe — with Garber in on that big stop, as well.
“We do adversity time in practice, work on quick changes and short fields,” Derge said. “Up 14-7, the defense had a short field and didn’t let them score. We had a gameplan going into tonight, and it worked. We only allowed one big run, had a couple of goal-line stops and red zone stops. That’s our defensive philosophy.”
And with 3:04 left in the first half, the Devils gained some separation, finishing off a 73-yard drive in eight plays. Tippecanoe ran the same look that Barhorst had hurt the Braves on before — only to have Hughes give an outstanding fake to him and take a bootleg 25 yards the other way untouched to make it 21-7.
The Devils then forced a three-and-out and drove the ball to the Shawnee 26 before turning it back over on downs with less than a minute left in the second quarter, setting up Garber’s heroics on the half’s final play.
Tippecanoe couldn’t capitalize on that momentum shift in the third quarter, but it didn’t allow Shawnee to recapture it, either. With the score still 28-7 after three quarters, the Braves drove to the Tippecanoe 20 — only to turn the ball over on downs once again. Six plays later, Barhorst broke a 52-yard touchdown run up the middle, avoiding getting tripped up and keeping his balance at the line then beating the defense the rest of the way down the field to make it 35-7 with 7:30 to play — and the Devils cruised from there.
Tippecanoe hosts another familiar rival in Week 3, facing Milton-Union.
Contact Josh Brown at (937) 552-2132, or follow @TroyDailySports on Twitter.