"The first thing I want to say is that is one heck of a Greencastle football team," South Putnam head coach Troy Burgess said. "Coach (Josh) Buis and his whole staff deserve a lot of credit -- that Greencastle team has got a lot of heart and they're in great physical shape. They weren't cramping. He and his staff have done a wonderful job there."
With all the talk of Greencastle's high-flying passing offense and South Putnam's grinding ground attack, it all came down to an offensive lineman to give South Putnam perhaps its biggest win of the season so far.
South Putnam's defense stood its ground all evening, but some of their best moments were still to come.
With eight minutes left, South Putnam knew they had to stick with what had been working, mixing a blend of strong runs with short passes, if they had a shot a taking down the Tiger Cubs. And keeping the old saying, 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it' in mind, South Putnam mounted their final offensive charge to provided the defining moment of the game.
Zack Smith started the Eagles' drive with a 13-yard run, with Lucas Lorian adding a run of a yard. Facing third and nine, Seth Hammond hit Wade Custis on the sideline for a pickup of 20 yards. Rob Gibson put together back-to-back runs of 11 yards each, followed by Hammond hitting Codey Snow with a pass of eight yards.
The Eagles were driving and it seemed inevitable they would score to go back up in the ball game, but their plan hit a snag on the next play.
Smith took the ball up the middle with the end zone in sight, but after eight yards, the ball popped out and hit the turf tumbling toward the goal line. Purple and red jerseys went in pursuit with the ball evading most everyone until a pile of players formed in the back of the end zone. The referee examined the situation for a few moments before his arms flew into the air, signaling a touchdown for South Putnam.
Fans must have been asking themselves, "was it one of their running backs or a receiver who scored to put them back on top?" With players still on the ground, 6-foot-5-inch Ryan Chestnut, an offensive lineman rose from the pile holding the ball high as teammate swarmed him.
"What a great kid to score a touchdown," Burgess said. "Again, that just shows his heart. Both team are fighting for that thing in there, for him to come out of there with it says a lot about him also."
Hammond hit Lorian for the two-point conversion to give South Putnam a 28-24 lead.
Knowing GHS needed a touchdown to win the game, most assumed the Tiger Cubs would go to the air, but instead Greencastle called Derrick Lenihan's number. The senior ran four plays for a total of 30 yards and had the Tiger Cubs moving down the field.
However, on the next play, the ball came free and South Putnam's Cody Heller jumped on the ball to kill the GHS drive. But following a quick three and out by the Eagles, Greencastle was back in the drivers seat and in control of their own destiny.
This time the Tiger Cubs mixed the run and pass accounting for big gains. Facing a fourth and two, Lenihan took the ball around the left side for a 14-yard scamper with :37 remaining. With :31, Gilliam hit Mac Shuee for an eight-yard gain and it looked like South Putnam's offense would watch as the Tiger Cubs scored as time expired for the win.
But as they had all afternoon, South Putnam's defense rose to the challenge and made sure they would be going home with the win. On the next play, Gilliam dropped back to pass and released the ball as pressure closed in on him. The ball floated into the secondary where South Putnam's Justin Bumgardner hauled in his second interception of the night, ensuring a SPHS victory.
Burgess gave all the credit to his players, who coming off a big loss a week prior to North Putnam, showed the character he's talked about all season.
"Like I said last week after the game, we got our rear ends kicked, but we've got great kids," he said. "We have great kids that have a tremendous amount of heart. We know they're going to work hard; we just got our tails kicked last week.
"Today was an example. We got down early, we could have folded tent, but we've got kids that have a lot of heart, and like I've said from the start, they're great kids and that's why they were able to stay in this thing and win it in the end."
Things didn't start easy for the Eagles though. Greencastle came out on fire, connected on two passes for 68 yards and a touchdown. GHS added another touchdown after the Eagles fumbled the ball at midfield. A Gilliam plunge from one-yard out gave the Tiger Cubs a 12-0 advantage with 7:48 remaining in the first.
South Putnam scored its first touchdown through the air when Hammond hit Rob Gibson for a 38 yard score with 5:52 on the clock, cutting the lead to 12-6. South Putnam's special team gave its offense good field position on the 18-yard line after Ty Hewitt blocked a GHS punt.
Five running plays later, Smith slammed in from one-yard out to tie the game at 12-all with 1:34 remaining. Smith added another touchdown at the 6:28 mark in the second quarter, when he busted up the middle for a 32-yard touchdown gallop. Smith was the Eagles' workhorse on the night, rushing 20 times for 135 yards and two scores.
The Tiger Cubs cut the lead to 20-18 when Lenihan rushed in for a two-yard touchdown with :24 remaining before the half. Lenihan rushed 25 times for 95 yards and a score.
Talking after the game, Buis said the loss came down to one thing.
"It came down to -- I thought they won the battle up front," he said. "They played more physical than us. We had a hard time stopping the run. Their No. 33 (Rob Gibson) is a very good player, runs down hill. They did a good job, they won the battle up front and ultimately that cost us the ball game."
In spite of the loss, Gilliam had a great game under center for the Tiger Cubs. He threw for 346 yards on 17-of-28 passing with a touchdown and two interceptions. Buis acknowledged the junior's performance, and his feelings after the game, and that of the receivers on the afternoon.
"Obviously he's disappointed," he said of Gilliam. "He got hit a couple times late and the ball slipped out of his hands, but that kid played great. He kept us in the ball game -- him and the receivers. Like I said, South Putnam did a good job winning the battle up front. We couldn't run the ball very well tonight. We made some big plays in the passing game and they did a good job of keeping our offense off the field running the football and that's what it comes down to."
South Putnam's defense came up huge Saturday, preventing the Tiger Cubs from scoring multiple times from inside the 10-yard line. Burgess sang the praises of his defensive staff following the game.
"That's the ultimate bend, but don't break," he said. "Like I've said, coach (Nathan) Aker and all of our defensive coaches put so much time in and preparing our guys and I really feel like our guys are going to be prepared defensively because of the job he does and the other defensive coaches. And we were, we were in position, but we just blew of coverages early there and to Greencastle's credit, they've got great athletes and they made great plays when they needed to.
"But when our kids needed to step up and need to make the big plays, we were able to do it," Burgess added.
He said the win would serve as a springboard for the Eagles was they attack the second half of their season.
For Buis and the Tiger Cubs, it's back to the film room and field to prepare for North Putnam on homecoming night.
"I told these kids in the locker room, this is not our season," he said. "We're still a good football team, we're 4-1 and we played a very good team in South Putnam. Before they played us, they got beat by Tri-West and North Putnam, which are both ranked teams in the state. They're a good football team.
"You just have to come back, get on the horse on Monday and get ready to play Friday night," he added.
At ISU Memorial Stadium
Greencastle 12 6 0 6 -- 24
South Putnam 12 8 0 8 -- 28
GHS -- Gilliam 42 yard pass to Battin, kick failed 11:42
GHS -- Gilliam 1 yard run, conversion failed 7:48
SP -- Hammond 38 yard pass to Gibson, kick blocked 5:52
SP -- Smith 1 yard run, kick failed
SP -- Smith 32 yard run, conversion good
GHS -- Lenihan 2 yard run, conversion failed
GHS -- Battin 18 yard run, conversion failed
SP -- Chestnut fumble recovery in end zone, conversion good
Rushing -- Lenihan 25-96 TD, Battin 4-28 TD, Shuee 1-7, Christy 2-4, Gilliam 1-1
Passing -- Gilliam 17-28 346 yards TD, 2 INT
Receiving -- Battin 5-96, Stuckwisch 2-63 TD, Keyt 2-67, Shuee 5-43, Hutcheson 2-41, Lenihan 2-36
Rushing -- Smith 20-135 2TD, Gibson 15-75, Lorian 9-13, Custis 1-4
Passing -- Hammond 9-13 134 yards TD
Receiving -- Gibson 3-50 TD, Custis -42, Heller 2-24, Bumgardner 1-10, Snow 1-8