By Josh Brown
TIPP CITY — Over the next couple of seasons, the Tippecanoe football program will see more change than it has in decades.
Between the 2013 and 2014 seasons, the Red Devils showed that they’re capable of adapting, though.
After the graduation of its most successful senior class in program history — a class that made it all the way to the Division III, Region 10 championship game the previous year, the farthest a Tippecanoe football team has ever been in the playoffs — the 2014 Devils had yet another solid season, overcoming some regular season adversity to reach the playoffs for the 10th straight season before their run finally came to an end in the regional semifinal round.
And after that season-ending loss to Wapakoneta in the second round of the postseason, longtime coach Charlie Burgbacher knew what the team had accomplished after losing so much veteran talent the year before.
“It doesn’t (help) right now, but it will later on,” Tippecanoe coach Charlie Burgbacher said. “We only had two or three guys returning on defense and two guys returning on offense. So to get to the regional semis after all that, that’s quite an accomplishment.
“To get to the regional semis this year is quite an accomplishment. But it (losing) still (stinks).”
Before getting to that point, though, Tippecanoe had to show that it could survive after the graduation of leading running backs Jacob Hall and Cameron Johnson, as well as most of the leaders along the offensive and defensive lines.
But with returning senior quarterback Zack Blair — who had platooned with graduate Ben Hughes the year before — and yet another group of solid backs in a long line of them for Tipp — the Devils cruised to five straight victories to begin the season. And they didn’t just win those games, either — they obliterated opponents by an average score of 49.2-12.
Tippecanoe routed Graham 49-13 in the opener, knocked off Greenville 42-14 and defeated Milton-Union 57-14 to begin the season strong, then finished off that run with a 49-6 win over Ben Logan and a 49-13 win over Indian Lake. And in that victory over Indian Lake, running back Jakob Prall pulled off a hat trick and had a rushing, receiving and passing touchdown all in the same game.
And that’s when the Devils hit their first stumbling block.
Traveling to Springfield Shawnee — the team that they had defeated to win the Central Buckeye Conference Kenton Trail Division title outright in the final week of the regular season the year before — the Devils fell behind early and trailed 27-14 with eight minutes to play.
Tippecanoe cut that lead to six with 4:30 left, the Braves answered and the Devils answered back by making it a five-point game with 2:13 to go. But Shawnee was able to run out the clock from there and hand Tippecanoe its first loss of the year, 33-28.
The Devils got right back on track after that game, beating Bellefontaine 34-10, Stebbins 42-14 and Tecumseh 31-14 to set up the regular season finale at home against Kenton Ridge.
But a rainy, muddy night made Tipp City Park feel nothing like home, as both teams suffered through the slick conditions and found it hard to hold onto the football. Kenton Ridge was able to capitalize with 19 unanswered points in the third quarter, and Tippecanoe missed a field goal with 1:12 left on the clock that would have tied the game, allowing the Cougars to escape with a 19-16 win.
That game knocked the Devils down from No. 2 to No. 5 in the playoff standings, forcing them to play their first-round game on the road. It also bumped Kenton Ridge up to No. 4 — setting up a rematch in Springfield the very next week.
And the Devils adapted.
“The kids played the way they’re capable of playing this week,” Tippecanoe coach Charlie Burgbacher said. “We said all along, last week was like week. This week is this week. Last week, we were close, had some opportunities in the first half that we didn’t cash in on. We cashed in on them tonight.
“We were intending to do everything we did last week — just a little better.”
Prall — who returned a punt and a kickoff for touchdowns in the 42-8 victory — echoed that sentiment.
“Last week, we made a ton of mistakes,” Prall said. “This week, we fixed them.”
Tippecanoe took control early, surprising the Cougars with a trick play. On first-and-10 from the 50, Prall took a counter to the right – and lateralled the ball to quarterback Blair, who took it the rest of the way for the game’s first score, giving the Devils a lead with 3:30 to go in the first quarter.
“Honestly, we joke around when we run that play in practice,” Blair said. “It’s a designed double handoff with an option to pitch if the safety bites. And the safety bit on Prall since he’s such a great runner, so he pitched it back to me.”
“We’ve done that play all throughout practice, every week,” Prall said. “We always think ‘it’d be fun if we get to run it this week.’ And it worked twice perfectly tonight.”
“We haven’t seen that since probably 1997, when Matt Barhorst was pitching to Derek Thompson,” Burgbacher said. “That play has always been there. The first thing you’ve got to worry about is blocking for it, but we kind of put it on the shelf for a few years since we couldn’t make the handoffs. But with the guys we got now, we pulled it off the burner.
“We’ve used it all year in practice. It’s always been there.”
From there, the Devils dominated for their second first-round postseason victory in as many years. That set up a regional semifinal matchup against unbeaten, top-ranked Wapakoneta — which was looking to reach the regional championship game for the first time in the program’s history, as Tippecanoe had the year before.
The Redskins took more than eight minutes off the clock with their opening drive, scoring to take a 7-0 lead with 3:43 left in the quarter. Tippecanoe, meanwhile, couldn’t break off the big plays that had carried it through all season long on offense as Wapakoneta’s defense swarmed the Devil ballcarriers at every turn.
“We knew that could be an issue,” Burgbacher said of Wapakoneta’s speed on defense countering the Devils’ speed on offense. “We couldn’t do some of the things we wanted to, and the next thing you know you’re out of sync and out of your rhythm. We couldn’t get into our game, and they really contained us.
“We were getting chunks of yards, sure. But we’re used to those chunks being breakaways. They didn’t give up the big play.”
But the Devils’ defense and special teams kept them in the game, and Tippecanoe was able to capitalize on a partially-blocked punt in the second quarter. Austin Clack punched the ball in from 1 yard out to tie the score going into the break.
The Redskins held on Tippecanoe’s possession to start the second half, then they marched down the field and scored to take a 14-7 lead with 5:53 left in the third, and Wapakoneta then returned an interception for a 20-yard touchdown to make it 21-7 with 2:12 left in the quarter. The two teams battled through the fourth with neither able to score until the Redskins put the game away with a 79-yard touchdown run with 2:09 remaining for a 28-7 final.
Wapakoneta went on to lose 34-28 in four overtimes in the regional championship game to Trotwood — the team that ousted the Red Devils the year before. Trotwood then lost in the state semifinal round, 17-14 to Central Catholic.
For Tippecanoe, it marked the team’s 10th straight playoff appearance and second straight year with at least one playoff win. Before that, from 2007 to 2012, the Devils only had one playoff victory, coming in 2009.
Heading into the next couple of years, though, Tippecanoe will face plenty of change. Gone is coach Burgbacher, who will now be coaching alongside his son, Troy High School head coach Matt Burgbacher, as the Trojans’ defensive coordinator. Taking over for Tippecanoe will be Joel Derge, who was the Devils’ offensive coordinator in 2014 and defensive coordinator in 2013. Burgbacher coached the Devils for the past 26 years, going 186-91 with 11 playoff appearances.
And following this coming season, Tippecanoe will be leaving the Central Buckeye Conference to join the Greater Western Ohio Conference’s North Division, meaning a massive change in the opposing competition.
But if nothing else, the past few years have shown that the Devils have the ability to adapt to change.
Contact Josh Brown at (937) 552-2132 or by email at [email protected], or follow @TroyDailySports on Twitter.