By Josh Brown
TIPP CITY — Greater Western Ohio Conference football, welcome to Tippecanoe.
In a matchup between Tippecanoe’s speed and Piqua’s size and ability to grind it out — and a matchup of future division rivals — the second-seeded Red Devils made the most of their chances on offense and held tough on defense when the No. 7 Indians pushed their way into the red zone, pulling away in the second half for a 37-12 victory in the first round of the Division III, Region 10 playoffs Friday at Tipp City Park.
“If you look at the statistics, it looks like they dominated us,” Tippecanoe coach Joel Derge said. “But we played the field position game and bend-but-don’t-break defense. I’m really proud of my guys.
“It was just one of those games where we only had three total possessions in the first half — only had the ball for one play in the first quarter — but we were just able to out-execute them.”
The Red Devils (10-1), who won the Central Buckeye Conference Kenton Trail championship outright, will leave that division for the GWOC next year — joining Piqua in the North. And while Friday’s game served as a preview of that, there was far more at stake for both teams.
It was the third straight season Tippecanoe has won a first-round playoff game. Two seasons ago, the Devils reached the regional final where they lost to Trotwood — which defeated Celina 44-18 Friday night, setting up a rematch with the Devils in next week’s regional semifinal.
“I’ve only been here for three years now, so I’m really proud of the kids,” said Derge, who had been an assistant for two seasons under longtime coach Charlie Burgbacher before taking the head coaching job this year. “This senior class has now set the school record for playoff wins with four. I’m really proud of my seniors tonight.”
Piqua (6-5), which made its first postseason appearance since 2007, looked strong early on, holding the ball for almost seven full minutes on the game’s opening possession. The Indians converted a pair of third downs along the way and earned a first-and-goal from the 2-yard line … before they began moving backwards. A second-down sack by Tippecanoe’s Chris Garber put the Indians back on the 11, and a false start pushed them to the 16 before a pair of incomplete passes handed the ball to Tippecanoe.
And the Devils showed off their speed immediately.
Sophomore fullback Cole Barhorst broke through the middle and ran the ball 84 yards untouched, torching the Piqua defense on Tippecanoe’s first play from scrimmage and giving the Devils a 7-0 lead with 4:50 left in the first quarter.
“That was huge,” Derge said. “It gave our kids confidence that we could run the ball against Piqua, and that we could run it up the gut against them, too. That’s what that play is called, ‘Gut.’ We knew they were bigger than us and that we’d have to execute, and the guys did a great job of blocking tonight.”
It proved to be Tippecanoe’s only offensive play in the quarter, as Piqua went right back to work driving. The Indians put together a 14-play, 78-yard drive that last into the second quarter — converting three more third downs along the way. And on third-and-goal from the Tipp 10, quarterback Rupert de la Cruz found Hunter Hawk in the end zone to put Piqua on the board. The Indians missed the extra point, though, allowing Tippecanoe to hold onto the lead, 7-6.
Tippecanoe fumbled on its next possession and Piqua drove right back into Devil territory, earning a first-and-goal from the 14. The Devils held again, though, and on fourth-and-10, Noah Carlson sacked de le Cruz for an 11-yard loss to give the ball back to the Devils with 3:05 left in the half. Tipp took it 75 yards in 11 plays, capping off the drive with a 7-yard Cole Barhorst touchdown — but the Devils missed the extra point, as well, and they led 13-6 at the half. The Indians won the time-of-possession war 20:18-3:42 in the first half.
The Devils picked up right where they left off in the second half, with Jakob Prall capping off the opening drive of the third quarter by breaking a 33-yard touchdown run to make it 20-6.
Cade Rogers then picked off a pass by de la Cruz and returned it into Indian territory, and Dylan Shomper kicked a 23-yard field goal to give the Devils a 17-point lead. And early in the fourth quarter, Rogers intercepted de la Cruz again, this time returning it 75 yards for a touchdown to give the Devils a 30-6 lead with 8:19 to play.
“Cade played big for us tonight,” Derge said. “He’s our leading tackler, and with him being able to intercept those two passes, that was big. That touchdown return was huge for us at that point.”
Piqua fought back, with de la Cruz punching it in from 1 yard out, but the Devils forced an incompletion on the two-point conversion try, leaving the score 30-12 midway through the fourth. And after the Devils pinned Piqua deep with a punt, they forced a fumble and took over on the Indian 3 — and Austin Subler punched it in on the next play to seal the win, making the score 37-12 with 2:46 to go — and the Devils celebrated a playoff victory over a new rival.
Barhorst led the Devils with 184 yards on 14 carries, breaking the 100-yard mark befor halftime and scoring a pair of touchdowns.
The Tipp defense, meanwhile, held Tipps-Clemons to 98 yards on 24 carries, while de la Cruz threw for a career-best 286 yards, going 28 of 37 with a touchdown and the two interceptions while adding a touchdown run.
Tippecanoe will face Trotwood at 7:30 p.m. Friday at a yet-to-be-determined site.
Contact Josh Brown at (937) 552-2132, or follow @TroyDailySports on Twitter.