By Josh Brown
TIPP CITY — In the end, the night belonged to the Tippecanoe seniors — especially Ben Ambos.
The Red Devil senior broke a 23-yard touchdown run in the first half then, on the ensuing kickoff, delivered a fierce hit that forced a fumble and led to the go-ahead score, and the Tippecanoe football team put the game away from there in an emotional 20-14 victory over Greater Western Ohio Conference American North Division rival Butler on Senior Night Friday in Tipp City.
“Ben Ambos is a kid that I have loved coaching,” Tippecanoe coach Joel Derge said. “He’s a program kid, played JV last year as a junior, but he stuck it out, worked hard in the offseason, and here he is tonight coming up big for us.”
It was an especially up-and-down night for the Devils, who finished the season 5-5 and 2-3 in the GWOC American North, missing the playoffs for the second straight season. Three of those losses were by eight points or less — a 17-9 loss to Bellbrook in the season opener, a 16-10 loss to division foe Sidney and then a particularly heartbreaking 14-13 loss at Piqua in Week 9, where the Devils could only watch as a late seven-point lead slipped away in the final seconds after a late fumble led to a 6-plus-minte, 93-yard game-winning drive and a two-point conversion with nine seconds to go by the Indians.
Friday night, the Red Devils did not allow a repeat.
“We’ve lost a lot of tight ballgames this year,” Derge said. “Defensively, we were second in the North in points given up coming into tonight, and Butler’s only seven points tonight came on a fumble return. Our defense held strong tonight, including a 20-play drive where we didn’t let them get into the end zone. That’s bend but don’t break, and that’s our philosophy.”
For the third straight week, the Devils had to play in a constant downpour, and early on that caused problems for both offenses. The ball slipped out of Butler quarterback Mason Motter’s hands twice on the game’s opening possession, including a fumbled snap on third down that led to a punt. But Tippecanoe’s Troy Taylor threw a third-down interception to Butler’s Brad Daily, handing the ball right back to Butler on the Tippecanoe 48-yard line.
“The weather was definitely a factor tonight,” Derge said. “It’s been that way the past three weeks. When it’s cold and wet like it was tonight, it basically turns into our running game against their running game — and tonight, ours ended up being just a little better.”
The Aviators’ drive stalled on fourth-and-7 from the Tipp 23, though, with a pass falling incomplete in the end zone — but on the ensuing Red Devil possession, Butler’s Nicholas Coyle stripped the ball from a Tippecanoe ballcarrier and ran it back 60 yards for a touchdown to give the Aviators the lead, 7-0 with 2:42 remaining in the first quarter.
Tippecanoe forced a fumble on the first play of the second quarter, though, with senior Grant Heatherly recovering it on the Butler 33. And on third-and-7, Ben Ambos took the ball off the left tackle and found daylight, streaking 23 yards for a touchdown to put the Devils on the board — but a missed extra point, which proved costly in the one-point loss to Piqua the previous week, allowed Butler to maintain a 7-6 lead with 8:47 left until halftime.
That lead didn’t last long, though.
A big hit by Ambos on the ensuing kickoff return sent the ball flying, and the Devils recovered again to set up shop on the Butler 25.
“Ben’s technically not even on the kickoff team,” Derge said of Ambos and the game-changing hit. “But there was an injury, so he ended up out there. The kick wasn’t a touchback and they were able to return it, and he was just in the right place at the right time.”
A 23-yard run by senior Jackson Yeager on the first play set up a 1-yard touchdown run by junior fullback Cade Beam two plays later, and the Devils held their first lead of the game at 13-7 with 7:28 left in the second quarter. The teams traded punts the rest of the half, and Tippecanoe maintained a tenuous six-point lead.
Senior Josh Burritt gave the Devils some much-needed breathing room, though, scoring on a 15-yard run in the third quarter to put Tippecanoe up 20-7. Butler’s Ryan Martin punched in a touchdown with 4:09 left in the game to get back to within one score, but the Devils were able to bleed off enough of the clock to hang on for the victory.
Butler had already clinched a playoff spot, but the game still could have implications for the Aviators depending on a number of other results. Butler finished the season 6-4 overall and 3-2 in the Greater Western Ohio Conference American North Division. But entering the night, it sat in fourth in the Division III, Region 12 playoff standings, so the loss may cost the Aviators a home game in Week 11 — but that won’t be made official until Sunday.
“Butler’s a great football team,” Derge said. “They already clinched a playoff spot before tonight, so they’ll get to play another game next week. This is always a big game around here, and the last three years it’s been real close. It’s rivalry week for us every year.
“These seniors have just overcame so much this year. They’ve battled so much adversity, injuries and so on, and their resilience and perseverance on the year says a lot about their character. I couldn’t be more proud. And tonight, nothing else can be said other than they found a way to win.”
Contact Josh Brown at (937) 552-2132, or follow @TroyDailySports on Twitter.