MERCERVILLE, Ohio — Just like a game of tic-tac-toe.
The Eastern football team picked up its third win in a row and its third straight victory over Tri-Valley Conference Hocking Division host South Gallia on Friday night in Gallia County, as the Eagles claimed a 40-20 victory to spoil the Rebels’ homecoming.
The Eagles (3-2, 2-1 TVC Hocking) didn’t start off the game the way they wanted to, going three-and-out and punting to the Rebels (2-3, 1-2). Eastern didn’t punt for the remainder of the game, however, scoring touchdowns on its next six offensive possessions.
“We talked in the locker room and said ‘if there’s anything you ever want to do at this point in the universe, let’s do it right now, let’s get this,’ and obviously the kids responded,” Eastern head coach Pat Newland said. “The kids made plays. We called the plays and they made them, it’s that easy.”
The Eagles forced South Gallia into a three-and-out on its first possession, giving the ball back to the guests at the SGHS 44. Eastern used four straight running plays, with junior quarterback Nate Durst punching in from one yard out for six points at the 7:37 mark of the first.
On the ensuing kickoff, SGHS sophomore Kyle Northup picked up the ball on the Rebel 15-yard line and ran 85 yards for the touchdown. Sviatoslav ‘Savat’ Hryhorenko added the point after, giving the hosts a 7-6 lead with 7:23 left in the opening stanza.
On Eastern’s next possession, the guests covered 55 yards on seven consecutive running plays before Durst tossed a five-yard touchdown pass to Sharp Facemyer with 3:48 left in the first period. Durst ran in the two-point conversion to give the Eagles a 14-7 advantage.
The Rebel offense answered with 60-yard scoring drive of its own, with Northup finding paydirt on a quarterback keeper from three yards out. Savat added the point-after, tying the game at 14 with 10:48 left in the first half.
Eastern covered 53 yards in six plays on its next drive, with Durst finding Blaise Facemyer for a 10-yard scoring pass at the 7:24 mark of the quarter. Daniel Harris kicked in the extra point for EHS, extending the Eagle advantage to 21-14.
South Gallia came up two yards short of the first down and punted after three plays on the ensuing drive, giving Eastern the ball at midfield with 5:10 left in the half.
Eastern converted a pair of first downs and had the ball inside the 20, but a pair of holding penalties not only took a touchdown off the board, but backed EHS up to the 36-yard line with fourth-and-19 to go.
On the fourth down play, Durst connected with Blaise Facemyer for a 22-yard pass, which set up a four-yard touchdown pass from Durst to Josh Brewer on the next play. Harris kicked in the extra point with 19 seconds left on the first half clock, giving EHS a 28-14 advantage.
“That was huge,” Coach Newland said of the sequence that sent the Eagles into the break ahead 14 points. “We had fourth-and-forever, and we always talk about not giving up. They could have easily looked at it and said ‘it’s fourth-and-20, we’re done, let’s get to the locker room, we’re still up,’ but they fought for it.”
For the Rebels and first-year head coach Mike Smith, Eastern’s fourth-and-19 conversion did more damage than just the seven points it led to on the score board.
“That play defiantly broke our back,” Coach Smith said. “We go into half 14 points down instead of seven and we’re coming out with the ball. We had them at fourth-and-20 and let them convert to get a first down. If we get a stop there, we come back out — the first drive we stalled, but the second drive we scored — and then it’s a tie game.”
Trailing 28-14, the Rebels were backed up 24 yards over their first three plays of the second half, but the hosts received a gift as Eastern fumbled the punt and South Gallia took possession at its own 34.
With new life, the hosts marched 66 yards on 10 plays, with Jacob Birtcher capping off the drive on a six-yard scoring run. The Rebel point-after attempt was blocked, leaving the Eagles ahead 28-20 with 3:51 left in the third quarter.
Eastern’s lone offensive drive of the third period lasted 2:38 and covered 68 yards in five plays. The final play of the possession was an 18-yard touchdown pass from Durst to Sharp Facemyer, giving EHS a 34-20 advantage with 1:13 left in the stanza.
South Gallia covered 45 yards on its next drive, before a holding penalty followed by back-to-back incomplete passes gave possession back to EHS.
The Eagles drove the final nail in the coffin with a 10-play, 45-yard scoring drive that was capped off by a nine-yard scoring pass from Durst to Brewer.
“I thought we came back in the second half and played hard,” Coach Smith said. “We came up short, but I thought our kids played hard and they fought hard, so I don’t have any complaints.”
For the game, Eastern held a 19-to-9 advantage in first downs and a 344-to-149 edge in total offense. EHS outgained the Rebels 229-to-123 on the ground and 115-to-26 in the passing game. The Eagles committed the game’s lone turnover and were penalized five times for a total of 50 yards, while SGHS was flagged six times for a total of 40 yards.
Durst — who had 84 yards and one touchdown on 10 carries for Eastern — was 9-of-12 passing for 115 yards with five passes going for touchdowns.
“He gave us a great opportunity to win the game,” Coach Newland said of his junior signal caller. “Early on in the season he had a lot of turnovers and he didn’t look great. We talked to him and I said ‘I think you’re trying to be a drop back passer, you’re more of a Baker Mayfield-type, you’re a backfield football player.’ Now if you’ll notice, he’s running across the field, reversing his field and doing all that stuff.”
Brewer led the Eagles with 106 total yards and two scores, combining 18 carries and two receptions. Blaise Facemyer hauled in a team-best four passes and carried the ball three times, totaling 79 yards and one score, while Steven Fitzgerald had 42 total yards on three carries and one grab.
Sharp Facemyer finished with two touchdowns and 23 yards on two receptions, while Blake Newland had one carry for 10 yards.
Northup completed 4-of-9 passes for 26 yards for SGHS, while rushing 16 times for 47 yards and one touchdown.
Birtcher had one touchdown and a team-best 65 yards, combining 14 carries and two receptions. A.J. Woodall finished with 24 yards on three carries, while Bryceton Folden chipped in with 13 yards on two catches.
Undoubtedly, South Gallia was adversely affected by the absence of its leading rusher for the year, sophomore Jeffrey Sheets, who missed the end of last week’s game and then was reinjured in warm-ups on Friday.
“Jeffrey’s knee has been bothering him anyway, so we tried to make some adjustments, but we were planing on him playing,” Coach Smith said. “Hopefully next week we’ll be a little more prepared with him being out of the lineup. Hopefully next week will be a different story.”
Eastern improves to 13-6 all-time against the Rebels and the Eagles are now 6-4 at SGHS.
Next Friday, South Gallia visits Belpre, while Eastern hosts Waterford.
Alex Hawley can be reached at 740-446-2342, ext. 2100.