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Ohio Valley’s Greatest Games: 1984 — 1984 Team Is the Bar For Steubenville Football

Photo provided Reno Saccoccia talks with his Steubenville players during the Big Red’s 1984 Division II state title game against Columbus Whitehall. Big Red won, 12-9, in overtime.

STEUBENVILLE — The 1984 Big Red football team didn’t just raise the bar for the school’s storied athletic program. Instead, as Hall of Fame coach Reno Saccoccia pointed out recently, it is the bar.

Thirty-five seasons ago, Big Red made valley history-becoming the first area Ohio football team to earn a state championship in a game decided on the playing field.

On Nov. 23, 1984, Joe Johnson’s 1-yard scoring plunge lifted Big Red to a thrilling 12-9 overtime victory over Columbus Whitehall-Yearling in the Division II title game, played inside Ohio Stadium.

The win allowed Big Red to cap a 13-0 season under Saccoccia, who was in his second year as head coach.

“There have been many outstanding teams and players in Big Red’s athletic history,” Saccoccia said. “The bar at Big Red has always been set really high regardless of the sport. For me, however, the 1984 team not only raised the bar, it became the bar for measuring success.

“Winning that championship was the best feeling in the world. It was something the guys worked for since they started to play football. It was one of the greatest things that could happen to the team, the school and our community. That victory really got our program moving in the right direction.”

After a scoreless first half, Big Red broke on top early in the third quarter when Johnson recovered a blocked punt in the Whitehall end zone. John Downard pushed his way through the Whitehall line to block the punt at the Rams’ 25.

Johnson then followed the bouncing ball into the end zone before falling on it. The extra point attempt failed.

Those six points which came with 1:56 gone in the third, held up until late in the fourth quarter when the Rams put together a 14-play scoring drive that chewed 5:45 off the clock.

Whitehall’s Jim Soma made an acrobatic catch of a 6-yard Brian Jones pass with just 21 seconds left in regulation to make it 6-6.

On the conversion try, the snap from center was bobbled and Whitehall’s holder was stopped at the 2-yard line, thus setting up overtime.

“Talk about the importance of special teams,” Saccoccia said. “We block a punt to score our first touchdown then they have a bad snap from center on an extra point attempt. That snap just wasn’t on target and we were fortunate enough to get the game into overtime.”

In overtime, the Rams, who finished their season at 12-1, moved the ball from Big Red’s 20 to the 5 before setting up for a 19-yard field goal try by Jim Carter. He split the uprights, putting Whitehall ahead 9-6.

Steubenville relied on its running game once it got the pigskin in OT. Three carries by Todd Kelley put the ball at the Whitehall 4. Brian Young plowed his way to the 1. After quarterback Steve Nodianos was stopped cold on a sneak, Johnson took a handoff, put his head down and snaked through the defenders and into the end zone for the winning score.

“Playing Whitehall in the championship game was like playing in a mirror,” Saccoccia said. “They were so much like us. They were a running team and used some play action pass.

“Whitehall was a hell of a football team. Our kids just wanted it a little more than theirs did that day. After they kicked the field goal, I told our kids not to worry. All they had to worry about was moving the ball 20 yards against 11 people.”

Kelly finished as Big Red’s top rusher, getting 18 carries for 62 yards. Young added 47 yards on 12 attempts. Johnson added 13 yards on three attempts and finished with eight tackles.

Johnson also managed to tie two Division II records in the game-the individual record for most touchdowns in a game and the record for most points scored by an individual.

Official attendance figures for the game were not supplied but a crowd estimated at 9,000 reportedly looked on. Of that number, estimates show that about two-thirds were Big Red supporters.

“That crowd was incredible, wasn’t it?” Saccoccia asked. “Those fans wanted it as bad as we did. We sensed that we were a little down after that Whitehall scoring pass but when they missed that extra point, the crowd got going again.”

In rolling to a 10-0 regular season, Big defeated Youngstown Ryan, East Liverpool, Columbus Marion-Franklin, Dover, Toledo Devilbiss, Cambridge, Wintersville, Bellaire, Youngstown East and Catholic Central. Its defense (known as the Ghostbusters) allowed just 49 points.

The wins against Wintersville and Central both went down to the wire. An overthrown pass on a two-point conversion with 1:40 left to play allowed Big Red to hang on against the Golden Warriors. In the city championship game, Big Red scored the winning touchdown with 28 ticks remaining on the clock.

Big Red finished second in the Division II Region 7 computer standings and also was number in the AP poll.

Saccoccia and company opened the postseason by blanking Youngstown Ursuline 8-0. In the semifinals, they shut down Westlake 26-6.

Saccoccia and company opened the playoffs on the road, traveling to Youngstown State’s Stambaugh Stadium for a date with Ursuline. The game was played in a heavy rain.

Big Red’s first state championship won on the field was made even sweeter by the fact that Saccoccia coached many of the players on the 1984 team while he was at Harding.

“I had the seniors as sixth, seventh and eighth grade players,” he said. “I was a varsity assistant when they were freshmen and sophomores then I took over when they were juniors. That was a great bunch of guys to start my career with.

“I learned a lot about coaching while I was at Harding. One of the things I learned was perseverance. This group played with perseverance and intensity.”

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