By NICK BEDWAY
WHEELING - Trailing 6-0 with less than 5 minutes remaining during a frustrating game for the offenses by both teams, St. John Central turned two stunning defensive plays into touchdowns and shocked Bridgeport 14-6 in the opener of Thursday's McDonald's OVAC Kickoff Weekend at Wheeling Island Stadium.
Kasey Opic stripped the ball from a Bulldogs running back and raced 25 yards untouched into the end zone to knot the score at 6-6. Dario Paolino's extra-point kick sailed just inside the right upright to put the Irish on top for the first time with 4:27 to play.
Bridgeport’s Colt Charlton (10) knocks the ball out of the hands St. John’s John Alvey (32) during the second half of their game Thursday night .
Photo by Scott McCloskey
Bridgeport's next possession also ended in disaster following a 10-yard sack of quarterback Bailey McGrath by Kolin Melko at the 1-yard-line. Faced with fourth-and-26 and less than 3 minutes left, Bulldogs coach Rudy Vavrock decided to roll the dice, calling for a halfback option pass out of the end zone by Dallas Fields. The speedy senior took the pitch, rolled to his right and his desperation pass toward the middle of the field was intercepted by safety Alex Francis.
After stepping in front of the receiver, Francis made the pick and headed toward the right sideline, finally diving for the final yard at the pylon. Paolino's conversion kick was right down the middle, giving St. John an eight-point advantage with still 2:29 to play.
Bridgeport geared up for one last-ditch attempt at a TD and a possible game-tying two-point conversion attempt behind the arm of McGrath.
Melko, among a host of St. John defenders that harassed the Bulldogs in the late afternoon heat, knocked down a couple of passes before McGrath found Fields open twice for a dozen yards. One was an an excellent catch along the left sideline that moved the sticks. The Bridgeport sophomore quarterback then found Kyle Cooper on a 34-yard strike down the middle for a first down inside the St. John 10 with less than a minute to play.
Hampered by 85 yards in penalties throughout the game, a flag was dropped when the Bulldogs couldn't get a snap off in 25 seconds after spiking the ball on second down. Two plays later, Bridgeport's final chance ended when DJ Shoemaker tackled Fields well short of the goal line on fourth down.
Taking over a team that went winless in 2011 and had lost 12 in a row overall heading into his first season at the helm, Coach Jason Merryman was ecstatic after the victory was secured.
''I wanted to see how these kids would deal with adversity," the beaming Merryman said. ''It's been a long time for them and I think we handled it pretty well.
''They weren't going to lay down. When you walk in our locker room at home you will see a big sign that says 'Believe.' We have shirts that have 'Believe' on them. They believed they could do this."
It sure wasn't easy as the Fighting Irish never seemed to get untracked against a Bridgeport defense that also didn't bend much. Mistakes and penalties provided St. John with three possessions in Bulldogs territory during the first half alone, but Irish came away with no points.
Merryman's team also had a couple of opportunities in the fourth quarter, the last one ending with a punt to the Bridgeport 17 with St. John out of time outs and fewer than 5 minutes left.
All the Bulldogs had to do was hang on to the football and possibly pick up a couple of first downs that might have burned the remaining time off the clock. However, on the first down, Opic was able to wrestle the ball away and helped turn what appeared to be another loss for the Fighting Irish into a memorable victory.
Bridgeport was down to one timeout when it made the decision to pass out of its own end zone for yet another play that ended in disaster with the Francis interception and TD return.
''Two plays made the difference," Vavrock noted. ''But we made a lot more mistakes with the penalties and not being able to move the ball on offense. We missed a lot of assignments. St. John's stepped up and played strong. I still want to give our kids credit for coming back hard after being down late. We just could not get it done at the end."
The only score in the first half was a Bridgeport touchdown midway through the second quarter after a drive that consumed seven plays and 68 yards. Two key plays setting up the score were a 20-yard screen pass to Fields and a McGrath keeper for 32 yards inside the 5.
Fields, bottled up most of the day from a Fighting Irish defense that was set up to not let him beat them, got the touchdown off right tackle. Yet another penalty on the conversion attempt resulted in the Bulldogs going for 2, only to see McGrath's pass fall incomplete.
Fields, probably the most dangerous back in the Bulldogs' arsenal, was limited to 15 yards rushing on 17 carries, although he caught six passes for 68 yards. On at least three occasions, he had first down runs called back because of Bridgeport penalties.
Shoemaker led the St. John ground game with 47 yards on 15 attempts. Francis had three receptions covering 76 yards.
''Our defensive ends stayed there and did a great job against Bridgeport's counter plays," Merryman said. ''We didn't tackle too well at times but the kids were very aggressive and flew to the football.
''We'll get better. This was big. We'll see what happens in Week 2."