ZANESVILLE – For all the offensive fireworks set off at Zanesville’s Sulsberger Stadium Saturday night, it took defensive stands by Johnstown to preserve its unbeaten season during a Division IV shootout.
The Johnnies came from behind four times, and got big fourth-quarter stops to survive a wild 42-38 regional semifinal win against St. Clairsville. Second-seeded Johnstown will match 12-0 records with top-seeded Steubenville, a 46-7 winner against Salem, in a regional final next Saturday at 7 p.m. at a site to be announced Sunday.
Johnstown trailed 31-28 early in the fourth, when Cody Workman’s 52-yard punt and a 14-yard sack by defensive end Cody Blevins flipped the field and seemed to turn the tide.
“I knew someone had to make a play, and it just happened to be me,” said the 6-foot-4, 215-pound Blevins, who also lined up at fullback in the backfield on the goal-line. “The whole defense had to play well, and we did. It was exciting, hard-hitting on both sides of the ball.”
The Johnnies forced a short punt and took a 35-31 lead with 7:50 left on Andrew Sayer’s 1-yard run. But the Red Devils immediately responded when Brendan Ferns, a versatile 6-3, 220-pounder, turned a short sideline pass into a 59-yard TD reception from quarterback Zach Bigelow. Ferns caught eight passes for 212 yards and three touchdowns, and also ran for 96 yards on 12 carries and another score.
Down 38-35, Johnstown drove 52 yards in nine plays to score on Justin Franklin’s 6-yard run with 3:39 to play. Clay Psurny, who went 6-of-6 on PAT kicks, added his last for the 42-38 lead.
The Johnnies then stopped St. Clairsville twice, on fourth-and-17 after Hunter Alley’s 7-yard sack, and at midfield after Ferns made a 27-yard reception off a deflection.
Workman ran for 138 of his 174 yards in the first half for Johnstown, which rushed for 362 yards overall. His highlight reel 61-yard TD run, when he reversed field, broke tackles, stayed on his feet and galloped down the left sideline, touched off the scoring spree and pushed the Johnnies up 7-0.
But the Red Devils, primarily a ground team during the season, lined Ferns up as a receiver and took to the air on this night as Bigelow threw for 281 yards, including a 60-yard TD strike to Ferns to quickly tie the score 7-7. After Workman ran 28 yards for another score late in the first, Bigelow threw a 21-yard touchdown pass to Ferns to make it 14-14. Ferns later had a 41-yard run on a jet sweep, setting up Gage Cuiksa’s 2-yard scoring run as St. Clairsville led for the first time 21-14.
“We knew he was a very good athlete,” coach Mike Carter said of Ferns. “We saw on film that they lined him up all over. We tried to pay special attention to him.”
Like they did all night, the Johnnies responded by storming 94 yards in eight plays with Franklin scoring on a 3-yard run with just three seconds on the first half clock. Workman, who attempted only one second-half pass, hit Trent Coe for 12 and 26-yard gains, and had a 17-yard run to set up Franklin’s score for a 21-21 halftime tie.
“Our offensive line knows to keep blocking, even if I take off the other way,” Workman said. “Tonight, I saw a look in their eyes that I had never seen. I knew then that we were going to be alright. In the second half, our running backs came out strong and ran hard.”
When the Red Devils drove 69 yards in 11 plays to lead 28-21 on Ferns’ 2-yard run, back came the Johnnies to travel 65 yards in 10 plays, with Workman covering the final two yards on fourth-and-goal for a 28-28 tie. Sayer, who ran for 83 yards on 19 carries, had 38 yards on the drive. Franklin finished with 82 yards in 14 attempts.
“We told the kids coming in, it was going to take all four quarters to win this game,” Carter said. “At halftime, they knew what we had been talking about.”