WHEELING - Setting the stage for this week's epic battle of the undefeated against city rival Linsly, the Wheeling Central Catholic football team relied on its explosive ground game and tenacious defense to knock off Bishop Donahue 30-14 on Saturday night at Wheeling Island Stadium.
Gino Bianconi and Parker Henry both rushed for more than 100 yards while the first unit defense did not allow a point as the Maroon Knights elevated their record to 9-0.
Scoring on runs of 49 and 34 yards, Bianconi carried 12 times for 145 yards as he eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark on the season. The senior rushing standout entered the game needing 54 to reach the plateau.
Wheeling Central’s Andrew Keane tries to get around the tackle of Bishop
Donahue’s Jordan Bonar (6) during action
Saturday night at Wheeling Island
Henry found the end zone from 11 yards out and picked up 106 yards for his six carries. The quick-moving sophomore QB also connected on a 14-yard scoring pass to Braxton Nolte just before halftime to give Central a 17-6 lead.
Bishop Donahue's only points came when Saquan Finley recovered a Henry fumble in the end zone early in the second quarter and a 1-yard sneak by backup quarterback Lavonte Hampton with 1:30 remaining in the game. Hampton also ran in the 2-point conversion.
Both teams had four turnovers, three fumbles and an interception each, during the spirited battle played in rainy, 30-degree temperatures.
''We were able to create turnovers and took advantage of them,'' Mike Young, the veteran coach of the Maroon Knights said. ''We also had some breakdowns but this was a high-spirited game. It was a good backyard battle. Coach (John) Durdines does a great job with his kids.''
Bishop Donahue, 6-3 overall but still very much in the playoff hunt, wasn't surprised at all by what it saw from the defending West Virginia Class A state champions.
''Central is No. 1 in the state for a reason,'' Durdines reminded. ''Whenever they had to drive the field we did a decent job containing them. Obviously, when you get a running back like Gino and a quarterback like Parker Henry, they are going to bust some runs. Those kids are home-run threats every time every time they get their hands on the ball.
''I couldn't be more proud of our kids despite the miscues we had.
''They played with a lot of emotion. We tried to preach this week about ending every possession with a kick and not turning the ball over. The miscues hurt and we missed some tackles that could have limited the damage on a lot of those long runs.''
After forcing Donahue into a three-and-out opening possession, Central needed six plays and 1:55 to navigate 65 yards and jump ahead 7-0. Henry and Andrew Keane broke through some hand-tackle attempts for gains of 21 and 23 yards, respectively, to get things started. With the ball at the Bishops 11, Henry faked a counter handoff to Bianconi and sped through a hole in the middle of the line before cutting outside and racing into the end zone.
The Bishops' first turnover came when quarterback Cody Ballard, lined up in the shotgun, couldn't handle the snap with Nolte falling on the fumble at the Donahue 37. Later, a big defensive play by the Bishops' Christian McConnell dropped Henry for a 4-yard loss on third-and-goal. Bradley Cottrell then came on and split the uprights with his 22-yard field goal to push the lead out to 10-0.
On the opening play of the second quarter, a bouncing 47-yard punt by Bishop Donahue's Ollie Parker was downed inches outside the Wheeling Central goal line. Henry couldn't handle the snap and his fumble was recovered in the end zone by Finley for the defensive touchdown.
The Maroon Knights bounced right back with Henry's 38-yard keeper run down the right sideline that the ball in the red zone again. The Bishops tried to stiffen a second time but Central went for the touchdown on fourth-and-2 from the 14 instead of attempting another field goal. The gamble worked to perfection as Nolte, taking advantage of a blown coverage in the left flat, was wide open when he took the pass from Henry and coasted into the end zone for the TD that extended the lead to 17-6 heading into the half.
Two plays into the third quarter, the Knights scored again, this time on a sparkling 49-yard counter run by Bianconi. In the fourth quarter, another similar run saw the speedy Bianconi race 34 yards to paydirt. The drive also started when Ballard's fumble was recovered by Seth Yost at midfield. It was Yost's second recovery of a Donahue fumble.
With Nolte, Yost and Nick Naumann leading the defensive charge, the Maroon Knights sacked Ballard three times for a minus-35 yards. The Bishops ground game was led by the hard-running of Jordan Bonar, who racked up 64 yards on 14 carries.
''Bonar's just a hard-nosed kid,'' Durdines said. ''He plays hard all the time and with a lot of emotion. He never looks at the scoreboard and he is going to hit you when you come at him.''
The Maroon Knights' big-play offense accounted for 334 yards rushing on 44 attempts. Young was all smiles after watching his team control the game most of the way on the both sides of the ball.
''We are 9-0 and that says a lot for the kids and the program. Who would have thought in the summer that we would be in this position?,'' he asked. ''It's a tribute to the kids working together and playing together.''
Young and his coaches had the opportunity to watch Linsly's 33-8 victory over Brashear earlier Saturday and the head coach was truly impressed with the Cadets' performance.
Bishop Donahue closes its regular season at home against Paden City, hopeful of using that game as a springboard into the playoffs.
''We can still do a lot of good things,'' Durdines reminded. ''The thing about this game is last year when we played Central (and lost) our season was over. We've still got a week to go and hopefully some more games after that in the playoffs.''