By Josh Brown
COVINGTON — Each time Covington took the lead, Miami East had a fast answer.
Except the final time.
Covington’s Cade Schmelzer hit Andrew Cates with a 14-yard touchdown pass with 2:18 remaining in the game, and a Buccaneer interception by Cates with just more than a minute to go put the wraps on a hard-fought 19-17 homecoming night victory over the Vikings, one more chapter in one of the Cross County Conference’s most entertaining rivalries.
With the win, Covington got back to the .500 mark for the first time this season at 3-3 — that didn’t happen until the final week of last season — after dropping the first three games of the season for a second straight year. And, most importantly, the Buccs improved to 3-1 in Cross County Conference play, moving one game behind league-leading Fort Loramie.
“Covington is a good team,” Miami East coach Max Current said. “Everybody thinks, after they go 0-3, that they aren’t worth a darn. But their first three games are mean. I knew they were a good team. They play hard, their backs run hard, they’ve got nice skill players … they’re just a good football team. It was a good battle. Covington’s always a hard game, and it was a good, hard-fought battle. They just made a couple more plays than we did.”
Defending CCC champion Miami East, meanwhile, fell to 4-2 on the season and 2-2 in league play. In 2017, the Vikings held off Covington 34-26 to put away the league title, while the Buccs won 28-17 in 2016 during its last outright championship season. And in 2015, the Buccs won 21-20 in overtime, and the two teams shared the CCC title.
Oddly for two teams that have made their names running the football over the years, for most of the game it looked like the kicking or passing game would decide things. The Vikings were 1 for 4 on field goal attempts on the night, while Covington missed a pair of extra points — including one in the first half that allowed East to go into the locker room with a one-point lead.
“We missed three field goals, and we didn’t have good coverage on kickoffs, gave them some short fields,” Current said. “In the end, they stopped us four times inside the 20. We just couldn’t punch it in or get any points. We had opportunities to put points on the board, and we didn’t. Their short-yardage defense was better than our short-yardage defense.”
There wasn’t a lot of movement on the ground for either team during the first half. Both teams traded punts the entire first quarter, and the Vikings couldn’t take advantage of a fumble recovery by Nick LeValley early in the second quarter as a 40-yard field goal attempt came up a few yards short. But on the ensuing possession, Covington finally began to march.
The Buccs took the ball 80 yards in 12 plays and took almost nine minutes off the clock in the process. A 33-yard keeper by Schmelzer got things moving, and a quarterback sneak by Schmelzer on fourth-and-1 on the Viking 14-yard line kept the drive alive. On the next play, Duncan Cooper took a handoff up the middle but fumbled it at the 3 — only to have teammate Jesse Fisher scoop it up and finish the play off with a touchdown to put the Buccs on the board first. The extra point try clanged off the post, though, making it a 6-0 game with 1:46 left until halftime.
“They got some great second-effort yardage to get first downs, and their backs ran hard,” Current said. “I had guys there to make the play, but they ran through us. I give them credit — their backs run hard.”
That only served to wake up the Vikings, though. Ian Gengler hit a diving Justin Brown for a 25-yard reception, then the duo connected again for 24 more yards to put East on the Covington 5 with 30 seconds remaining. Two plays later, Vincent Villella bullied his way into the end zone on a 2-yard run, and Wes Sutherly’s extra point gave the Vikings a 7-6 lead with 16.4 seconds on the clock.
Covington fumbled the ball away on the first play of its next possession, allowing Miami East to try a 45-yard field goal on the final play of the half. The Buccs blocked that one, though, and the flurry of action put an end to a low-scoring first half.
Miami East began the second half with a solid drive, but a quarterback sack by the Bucc defense led to a 34-yard field goal attempt which went wide. Covington couldn’t move the football, though, and the Vikings got the ball back. A 30-yard pass from Gengler to Nick LeValley put the Vikings on the Covington 12, but they ended up settling for a 34-yard field goal by Sutherly to make the score 10-6 East after three.
The Buccs retook the lead midway through the fourth, with Cooper scoring on a 10-yard run to put Covington up 13-10 with 6:51 to play. But again the Vikings answered immediately, with Gengler hitting Brown for a big gain to the Covington 2 then running it in himself to give the lead back to East, 17-13 with 6:31 left to play.
But the Buccs had one final drive left in them, capped off with a 14-yard touchdown pass from Schmelzer to Cates. Another missed extra point left it at only a two-point lead, 19-17 with 2:18 to play — but a Covington interception on the Vikings’ final possession put the game away.
“You can’t let a team hang around,” Current said. “When we get opportunities to put points on the board, we’ve got to put them on the board. They had life, and we didn’t extinguish it when we had the opportunity. They came ready to play, and I guess I didn’t have mine ready to play.”
Covington will head back out on the road in Week 7, traveling to Bethel for a chance at more redemption — the Buccs lost to the Bees 12-7 last season. Miami East, meanwhile, will remain on the road, traveling to winless Bradford.
Contact Josh Brown at (937) 552-2132, or follow @TroyDailySports on Twitter.