ROCHESTER – Three fourth-quarter turnovers proved Tioga Central’s undoing in a 20-8 loss to Randolph that, once again, cut short the Tigers’ football season one step shy of the Class D state championship game.
Bryce Morrison put the Cardinals in front by 13-2 when — three plays after a Tioga giveaway — he sneaked 2 yards for a touchdown 2:53 into the final quarter at frigid Sahlen’s Stadium. Morrison returned an interception 51 yards for the clinching TD 3 1-2 minutes later.
That sequence took what had been a highly-competitive, intensely-played football game and dropped it squarely in the lap of the top-ranked, two-time defending state champions (11-1), who’ll oppose Section 9 champion Chester next weekend in the Carrier Dome.
Second-ranked Tioga closes at 10-2, with a loss to its Cattaraugus County nemesis for the third consecutive year in Week 12.
Randolph, as has been its wont when facing the Tigers, struck first on a commanding opening possession that went 70 yards on 10 rushing plays. Fullback Wesley Sluga surged through the middle for a 5-yard TD rush and it was 6-0 with 4:35 elapsed.
Thereafter, Tioga defended in Grade-A fashion, denying the Cardinals additional points for the remainder of that quarter and the entirety of the second and third as well.
Problem was, Randolph applied equally steadfast resistance, and it remained a 6-0 count when Tioga punted away the opening possession of the second half after gaining two first downs. Tanner Folk’s punt left Randolph the football at its 9-yard line, 4:14 into the half.
On first down, Josh Kithcart smacked Devyn Nelsen a yard behind the line of scrimmage, and then Kithcart and Dylan Babcock whacked Nelsen for another 1-yard loss. Quarterback Morrison was then a tad too choosy as he dropped and surveyed on a third-down pass play— and Babcock roared in and threw him to the icy turf for a safety midway into the third quarter.
The Tigers took over following Jake Lewis’ return of a squibbed kickoff at Randolph’s 45-yard line, but went nowhere and punted. Similarly, Tioga’s last possession of the third went three-and-out. But it was the Section 4 champions’ first crack at the football in the fourth that went most damagingly sour.
Facing third-and-5 from its 20-yard line, Sam Burns lost grasp of the football on what was to be an inside rush. Randolph’s Morrison recovered and his team set up at the 15. A second-down rush by Morrison picked up 11 yards to the 2, and he did the rest to grab the 13-2 advantage.
The play that assured Randolph a shot at the program’s fourth state championship in a six-year span came when, on a second-and-14 play from the Tigers’ 37-yard line, Morrison intercepted a football that had been tipped and returned 51 yards for a touchdown. Joe Andrews’ PAT made it 20-2 with 5:37 remaining.
“Really, that was the tale,” Cardinals coach Brent Brown said. “We turned it over twice in the first half and then they turned it over in the second half.”
Those two first-half takeaways were the doing of Burns. First, he leapt to intercept the football and then craftily kept his feet in-bounds to give the Tigers possession at their 18-yard line after Randolph had driven to the 30 late in the first quarter. Late in the second quarter, Burns won a fight with ace Randolph receiver Mason Bosley for a second interception at Tioga’s 41.
The first of Burns’ picks set in motion a drive that reached Randolph’s 1-yard line. On the opening play of the second quarter, facing fourth-and-goal, Jesse Manuel was stopped for no gain on an option to the right. That thwarted a possession on which Tioga stared down first-and-goal from the 5-yard line. First down brought an incomplete pass, and two 2-yard rushes followed before Manuel was denied.
“I don’t know if I should have called four power plays just to get it in, I figured take a shot on first down passing the ball and then we’d have three more downs to get it in — and we didn’t,” Tigers coach Nick Aiello said.
“We knew it was a big play,” Burns said. “We knew we had to execute on that play to make sure we stayed in the game. The stop, that was tough.”
Fullback Brad Jump said: “That was probably the biggest part of the game for them, but for us, that safety got us going. But us not punching it in, that gave them all the momentum in that quarter.”
After that initial 70-yard scoring drive, Randolph was limited to 99 yards until a final possession that concluded with Morrison twice dropping knee-to-turf.
“They got us that first (possession) and then we hunkered down and played outstanding defense the rest of the game,” Aiello said.
“After that first drive, we just said no, we stopped them,” Burns said. “They couldn’t go anywhere.”
The final touchdown of Tioga’s season was supplied by Manuel on a 2-yard inside rush with 4:07 remaining. Section 4’s rushing leader, however, was limited to 27 yards on 12 rushes. The Tigers’ top ground gainer was Adam Zwierlein, whose 95 yards featured a 62-yard burst that set up first-and-goal from the 5 on that what-coulda-been situation.
“Turnovers and field position, as it is in every big game,” was how Burns sized up the difference in the game. “And we didn’t hit big plays, they did. That pick-six sealed the deal for them.”
Randolph running back Nelsen needed 28 carries to arrive at his 102-yard total, and his contributions aided the Cardinals’ defensive efforts as well.
“You feel bad, truly, because that program is so good,” said Randolph coach Brown. “You know what they’re feeling over there because we’ve been on that side of it.”
On Twitter: @PSBKevin