ST. CLAIRSVILLE - Steubenville will play for a regional championship for the first time in three years despite making things "so tough on ourselves."
The now 8-4 Big Red overcame nine penalties, a rash of early injuries and a successful fake on a punt to clip Maysville 22-20 on Friday before an overflow crowd at Red Devil Stadium.
With the victory, Reno Saccoccia's club advances to the Division IV, Region 13 title game next week against Indian Valley, a 7-3 winner over Philo. The location for that contest will be announced Sunday by the OHSAA.
"It was a great team victory," Saccoccia said. "But we make it so tough on ourselves. We had to have 15 penalties (the Red actually drew nine for 97) and they were all big ones."
Maysville, which finished at 8-4 and also was eliminated from the post-season by Big Red in 2012, got the game's opening scoring, going 27 yards after forcing Saccoccia's crew to punt from its own end zone. Big Red's opening drive included a 15-yard penalty for a chop block.
Chase Roberts crossed the goal on an 11-yard sweep. Nate Vallee added the extra point.
Big Red knotted the score after its defense forced the first Panther punt of the evening on the first play of the second quarter. The score came on a 57-yard Mandela Lawrence-Burke pass to Lucas Herrington. The sophomore quarterback dodged some trouble and found Herrington running loose behind the defenders. John Paul Duff booted the point from conversion.
The Panthers took the lead right back, traveling 52 yards. The key play was the fake punt, Vallee (Maysville's backup quarterback) hitting Couger Clarke for the first down.
C.J. Harris got the score via a three-yard scamper.
Big Red immediately answered by going 71 yards. The drive was capped by a Johnnie Blue two-yard run. After a penalty against Maysville, Reno Saccoccia decided to go for two. Blue plowed up the gut to make it 15-14.
On this drive, Lawrence-Burke passed for 35 and ran for 26.
"There was no hesitation," Saccoccia said regarding the decision to go for two. "If we can't get a yard and a half, we don't deserve to be here."
The Red struck on its first possession of the third quarter, going 67 yards for a score. The touchdown drive came after the defense stuffed Maysville on its initial touch of the second half. Arin Goldsmith, William Harvey and Blue all delivered key defensive plays.
Penalties played a major role in the scoring march. The Big Red was aided by a personal foul call on the Panthers after Lawrence-Burke and Niko Petrides connected for a 16 yard gain. The walk-off gave Steubenville a first and goal at the nine.
Big Red then was called for another chop block, making it first and goal at the 34. Lawrence-Burke found Herrington again behind the Maysville defense. Duff's kick put the Red ahead 22-14.
"I asked the kids for a couple of big plays tonight and we got them," Saccoccia noted. "We could have nickled and dimed all night but you can't do that when you have third and one and get a penalty.
"The offense put us in a hole. We were called for two horse collars and face makes and we gave up a fake punt. We did everything we could to put ourselves in a hole."
Maysville appeared to be stopped on its next possession, which started from its own 41. On third and three, quarterback Jacob Miller was stopped short but Big Red was hit with a 15-yard facemask penalty. The Panthers took advantage of the new life given to them by the officiating crew. They covered the final 41 stripes in just six plays, Hayes bulling over from a yard away. A pass for the extra points failed.
The Panthers threatened again after Clarke intercepted a Lawrence-Burke pass. Maysville moved to the Big Red 26 (the march was assisted by a personal foul call against the Red) before the drive stalled. Vallee tried a 41-yard field goal but it sailed wide left. He also missed wide left earlier in the game.
Herrington also delivered a key defensive play on Maysville's final touch. He batted down a Miller pass, giving the ball back to Big Red with less than a minute to play.
"It feels good and I'm happy we won," Saccoccia noted. "If we want to win the championship, we have to be passionate at what we do, cut out the penalties and get some kids healthy. We lost too many kids too quick in this game.
"We made plays on offense and defense when we needed them. It didn't need to be that tough. We made it tougher that it had to be."
Lawrence-Burke had a huge night for Big Red, now 49-22 all-time in the playoffs. He passed for 204 yards and ran for 31 more. Herrington finished with seven catches for 133. Blue added 95 yards on the ground. He raced for 52 stripes late in the game on help Big Red put the victory on ice.