With all the finesse of slamming a sledgehammer to concrete, the Center Grove football team has found a winning formula.
A hard-hitting defense led by linebacker Bailey Bennett and a grind-it-out offense paved the way for Class 6A fifth-ranked Center Grove on Friday night in a 20-7 win at second-ranked Ben Davis.
Nothing fancy. But a third consecutive win for the defending state champion Trojans after a season-opening loss to Warren Central.
“The defense was outstanding,” Center Grove coach Eric Moore said. “On the line of scrimmage they played hard and they played fast. Their quarterback (Reese Taylor) is awesome and he made some great plays individually, but we kept rallying back and making big plays.”
Center Grove (3-1 overall, 2-1 Metropolitan Interscholastic Conference) was led by Bennett, a 6-foot, 210-pound senior, who was in the middle of everything. He intercepted a pass on Ben Davis’ first drive of the game and finished with a team-leading nine tackles, including two for loss. And for the second week in a row, Bennett entered the game on offense in Center Grove’s goal-line package and scored a touchdown.
His 3-yard plunge in the middle of the second quarter capped an 11-play, 91-yard drive to give the Trojans the lead for good, 13-7.
“He drives me crazy in practice,” Moore said with a laugh. “But he’s a gamer. He can just play the game of football. (Using him on offense) is just having fun. Just a different way to use him.”
Center Grove all-state running back Titus McCoy was sidelined again Friday as he recovers from a high ankle sprain he suffered in the opener against Warren Central. McCoy played sparingly in last week’s 19-6 win over Carmel, but Moore said he wants to hold him out until he’s 100 percent to prepare for a tournament run.
McCoy didn’t suit up Friday, wearing his No. 30 jersey with shorts and a visor.
“It breaks my heart that he’s not out there playing with us,” Moore said. “But he’ll get back. We’ll get some great momentum right now and then get him back. He’s driving me crazy not playing but now I’ve got to save him and make sure he’s good for the playoffs.”
Ben Davis (3-1, 1-1) had 360 yards of offense but was limited in its big plays. Taylor, a junior, was 20-for-26 passing for 180 yards and also rushed for 106 yards on 16 carries. But after averaging 52 points a game in wins over Tech, Avon and Pike, the Giants were able to manage only one touchdown (an 11-yard run by Taylor in the first quarter).
“(Defensive coordinator Chad Daniels) is one of the best coaches I’ve ever had,” Bailey said. “Our chemistry is really good. Their quarterback is a beast so we just tried to get off the field every time we could. I’m proud of our defense. They did a great job tonight.”
Ben Davis had its chances. One missed opportunity came on a drive deep into Center Grove territory late in the third quarter. The Giants stalled, then missed a 30-yard field goal that could have cut Center Grove’s lead to three. On the next play, Russ Yeast appeared to be headed nowhere, then bounced it outside and raced up the right sideline for an 80-yard touchdown run.
Just like that, Center Grove led 20-7.
“It was supposed to be a dive left, and I got in the hole and bounced around a little bit,” Yeast said. “They tried to take the ball from me so I spun away. I saw one guy and usually one guy isn’t going to tackle me. Then it was nothing but green grass.”
Yeast finished with 193 yards on 24 carries. Triston Clark added 57 yards on 11 carries and Trevor Hohlt had 14 carries for 50 yards and a score.
Center Grove passed just three times and didn’t complete one.
“Statistically we weren’t bad,” Ben Davis coach Mike Kirschner said. “But when you have penalties and can’t finish drives … we weren’t very good tonight. I’m very disappointed.”
The season-opening loss to Warren Central and the injury to McCoy raised a few questions about the Trojans. But those questions appear to have been answered with dominant defensive performances in wins over Whiteland, Carmel and Ben Davis.
“The offense is picking it and getting better and better,” Bennett said. “Once we get Titus back, we’ll be even more explosive.”
Call IndyStar reporter Kyle Neddenriep at (317) 444-6649. Follow him on Twitter: @KyleNeddenriep.