GREENCASTLE -- Homecoming was a wild affair at South Putnam High School Friday night.
Caught between the pomp and pageantry was a thrilling contest between the Eagles and long distance visitors Triton Central. It took overtime to separate the two squads and in the end it was the hosts who walked off the field with a 28-21 victory.
The Tigers looked to be unruly guests after their first possession ended with seven points. The combination of Brad Mohr on the ground and Luke Stephenson through the air allowed Triton Central to move the ball steadily from their own 34-yard line.
The five-minute, 12 play drive ended when Stephenson hit receiver Reggie Daniels for a six-yard touchdown pass to take the early lead. They added the extra point to make it 7-0 in favor of the visitors.
South answered immediately. The kickoff was taken by junior Zach Davis for 38 yards to set up the Eagles near midfield. Quarterback Grant Zimmerman took the first Eagle snap and lobbed a 33-yard pass to Dean Varvel to move the hosts inside the Tiger 20.
Rob Gibson would pound the rock in three plays later, taking a handoff off the right side of the Eagle offensive line into the end zone from 10 yards out to knot the score at 7-7 after Jake Gould's extra point.
The Eagle defense forced Triton Central to punt on their next possession. Two plays after the punt, South returned the ball back when Gibson, struggling for extra yardage, coughed up the ball and the Tigers recovered.
From the South Putnam 42-yard line, the Tigers moved inside the 10-yard line within three plays. After Mohr was stopped for no gain on first down, Stephenson was called for intentional grounding after he was chased down by senior cornerback Adam Zigler.
Backed up to the Eagle 33, Stephenson took the third down snap and connected with receiver Billy Stevens. Stevens was tackled a yard short of the goal line, setting up an early fourth and goal for the Tigers.
Triton Central elected to go for it. Stephenson dropped back to pass and was afforded a great deal of time by his offensive line. He finally saw Nic Obert alone in the back of the end zone and drilled in the pass for the touchdown.
Down 14-7 after the first quarter ended, South Putnam began another ground heavy possession that was again ended with a turnover. On the Tiger 46, the Eagles ran a toss sweep with Smith, who, in trying to get to the edge, lost the handle on the ball and saw Triton Central recover.
Both squads traded possessions as the second quarter continued to tick away. With around 5:30 to go in the half, South took possession after a Triton Central punt at their own 26. A steady ground strategy, now being spearheaded by senior Brayden Freeman, moved the ball into Tiger territory.
While Freeman was the workhorse, Gibson hit the big play. After moving the ball in to the Triton Central half, Gibson scored on the same play as he did in the first quarter, only this time taking it to the house from 40 yards out.
The Tigers went three and out on their next possession and the hosts looked to do the same before a fake punt call netted a first down with a minute to go. As the Eagles tried to put together a late drive, Zimmerman was sacked and the clock struck zeros, sending the squads back in to locker rooms tied at 14-14.
After the Homecoming court was selected and presented, it was back to football and back to a grinding South Putnam running game.
The Eagles took their opening possession 63 yards on 13 plays with Freeman and Gibson shouldering the load. Freeman would punch in the score going from 8 yards out, going to the left of the offense this time and giving South Putnam their first lead of the contest, 21-14.
Triton Central's offense came out and sputtered throughout the second half. A three and out, capped by Stephenson being sacked by defensive tackle Ty Hewitt, gave South Putnam the ball back inside Tiger territory.
After gaining a first down, back to back penalties and a lost yard set the Eagles up with second and 26. Eagle head coach Troy Burgess dialed up a halfback pass for Gibson, a play that in hindsight he was not happy with.
"When we're up 21-14, obviously we were trying to close the door on them. Probably not a very smart call on the halfback pass. When you're second and 30 in the wishbone, I don't have two plays drawn up out of the 'bone to pick that up. We decided to try the pass there. It was just a bad call on my part," Burgess said.
Gibson's pass was woefully underthrown and was picked off by Stevens. The senior took off and got a series of downfield blocks that enabled him to run it back for a 65 yard touchdown. With the extra point good, the scores were knotted at 21-21.
South then gave Triton Central great field possession. On a fourth and one on the next possession, Zimmerman bobbled the snap and gave it to Gibson with the Tiger defense swarming. Though Gibson pushed forward, his run was inches short of the first down.
The Tigers moved from the South Putnam 46 to the 20 in three plays before Stephenson threw inbetween two receivers and into the hands of Gibson. No Tiger looked to be able to catch Gibson, but while trying to turn around to block, senior Corey Stanton ended up turning back into Gibson and dragged him down.
The mistake would prove costly as the Eagles would miss a second consecutive fourth and short attempt. This time, Zimmerman and Freeman couldn't get the handoff right and the loose ball was recovered by the Tigers.
Again, Triton Central moved quickly into the Eagle half of the field and threatened to score. This time, they themselves would fall victim on a fourth down. On the South 26, Stephenson had senior Dillon Daniel open across the first down marker but overshot the receiver and turned the ball over on downs.
With the clock ticking away, neither side could make a breakthrough and began to prepare for overtime. By this point, what had been a slightly subdued South Putnam crowd began to gain energy as both sides watched the clock hit 0:00 with the score still tied at 21-21.
South elected to take the first overtime possession and made it count quickly. Faking a handoff, Zimmerman waited as Freeman snuck underneath the defense and popped out into the right flat. After a quick pitch and catch, Freeman breezed into the end zone and Gould added the extra tally to take the Eagles ahead 28-21.
Triton Central then got their chance to even the score. The Tigers tried to get Mohr to the edge on the first play but he was stopped by junior Cody Heller for no gain. Stephenson dropped back to pass on the second and decisive play.
Stephenson was looking for Daniel on the opposite side of the field and fired over a hopeful pass. Varvel was able to undercut Daniel when the pass was short and, after a bit of hand fighting, was able to come down with the pass and seal the win for the Eagles.
For Burgess, it was a well deserved victory.
"Ah, man, that was something, wasn't it? A great team effort. We had a lot of guys step up and make big plays tonight."
Ball security was a topic that seems to change from week to week for the Eagles, an issue that Burgess knows has to be looked at again,
"Last week we had none. We didn't turn it over one time last week and we did a nice job of handling the ball last week. We've got some things but it's always nice to work on those things after you've won a game," Burgess said.
"With the teams we've got in our schedule and our conference, you can't turn the ball over like that. We've got to work on ball security and be a little more disciplined with the ball."
Once it became clear overtime was possible, the Eagle coaching staff was already thinking well ahead about it.
"Once it got to be 21-21, I'd say about halfway through the fourth quarter we started talking about field position. Then they made a great stop on us down by the North end of the field. Once they made that stop, it was a situation where we decided to play for overtime," Burgess noted.
"We felt like if we got the ball in overtime, we could score in four plays from the 10-yard line. We felt good about that and felt like we were winning the battle up front. We felt very confident that we could score on four plays."
In order to make that happen, the offensive line had to deliver and Burgess noted their play.
"Thought our offensive line just did an outstanding job. They won the battle. That team [Triton Central] is much, much bigger than we were up front but our offensive line just whipped them up front tonight," Burgess said in commending his line.
The green theme continues next week for the Eagles as Monrovia travels to South Putnam next week. It will be yet another challenge for the squad.
"We've got to take care of the football and continue to work on those things," Burgess said. "We're still missing some assignments defensively and have got to work on that a little bit. Monrovia's a very good football team. We know that and we're going to work on those things."
Asked whether or not next week would be an exciting contest, Burgess was a little cautious in his reply.
"I hope not. I hope we put this thing away early. I'm getting old and I don't know if I can handle it."
At South Putnam
Triton Central 14 0 7 0 0 -- 21
South Putnam 7 7 7 0 7 -- 28
6:56 -- Daniels 6 yard pass from Stephenson (Humberto kick) 0-7
5:10 -- Gibson 10 yard run (J. Gould kick) 7-7
0:58 -- Obert 1 yard pass from Stephenson (Humberto kick) 7-14
3:18 -- Gibson 40 yard run (J. Gould kick) 14-14
5:39 -- Freeman 8 yard run (J. Gould kick) 21-14
1:23 -- Stevens 65 yard interception (Humberto kick) 21-21
SP -- Freeman 10 yard pass from Zimmerman (J. Gould kick) 28-21
Next game -- South Putnam hosts Monrovia for Senior Night next Friday at 7:00 PM.