Black Friday turned into Black Saturday (Nov. 24) at Ashland University. For everyone dressed in Purple and Gold, this was no bargain.
One of the most successful seasons in AU football history came to a close Saturday at Jack Miller Stadium/Martinelli Field where 16th-ranked West Texas A&M held off the fourth-ranked Eagles, 33-28.
The loss is the first of the season for the Eagles, who finish 11-1. The Buffaloes(11-2) will advance to the regional final next week where they will meet the winner of Saturday's Indianapolis-Colorado State-Pueblo game.
The game ended with the Eagles perched on the WT 26-yadline. AU had moved from its own 12-yardline to the WT 26 in five plays. On that final play, AU senior quarterback Taylor Housewright (Ashland, Ohio) was sacked by defensive lineman Ethan Westbrooks. The ball came free and the Buffs' Tyrell Higgins recovered at the WT 30-yardline.
That was Ashland's fourth and final turnover. Housewright, one of the best quarterbacks in NCAA Division II history when it comes to ball security, was intercepted three times. He was 20-of-34 for 166 yards and two touchdowns. This was the second time in his career Housewright was intercepted three times in a game. The last time was when he was a green sophomore at Indianapolis on Sept. 11, 2010.
"The turnovers always, you can't turn the ball over in the playoffs," said AU head coach Lee Owens. "We hadn't done that all season long. To do that in our first game of the playoffs is too much to overcome against a good football team."
AU sophomore running back Anthony Taylor (Arlington, Va./Washington-Lee) terrorized the Buffaloes all afternoon, rushing for 156 yards and a touchdown on 22 carries (7.1 ypc.). He also scored on a touchdown pass. Sophomore tight end Logan Slavinski (Bellville, Ohio/Clear Fork) caught seven passes for 43 yards. Junior defensive back Brian Gamble (Massillon, Ohio/Illinois) had 14 tackles (nine solo) and caught four passes for 66 yards. Gamble had three catches for 62 yards in the final drive. Junior linebacker Cody Bloom (Napoleon, Ohio) had 12 tackles.
For the Buffaloes, quarterback Dustin Vaughan was 35-of-50 for 398 yards and four touchdowns. Wide receiver Torrence Allen had 13 catches for 185 yards and three touchdowns. Wide receiver Nathan Slaughter had 10 catches for 98 yards. AU limited the Buffs to 53 yards on the ground (2.0 ypc.).
The AU special teams also made a difference. Sophomore defensive back Eric Schwieterman (Norwalk, Ohio/St. Paul) blocked a punt and freshman defensive back Alex Winters (Canal Fulton, Ohio/Massillon Washington) picked up the ball and returned it 12 yards for a touchdown.
The special teams helped produce another touchdown when Housewright punted and his bouncing kick nicked the leg of the Buffs' Chris Ceazer. Ashland recovered at the West Texas 37-yardline and moments later, Housewright threw a 10-yard touchdown pass to Taylor.
The Eagles trailed, 10-0 after one quarter, but rebounded to take a 21-19 lead at halftime. In addition to Taylor's touchdown catch, AU's other first half scores came on the Winters punt block play and a 51-yard scamper by Taylor. That's a productive first half, but it wasn't what the Eagles had hoped for. The offense that averaged 42.0 ppg., per game in the regular season wasn't running as usual.
Owens said his team, "was out of sync," all day. Part of that could be attributed to a West Texas A&M defense that put constant pressure on the pocket. The Buffaloes lead the nation in sacks. They sacked Housewright four times and they had two quarterback hurries. The quickness of the West Texas defense gave the Eagles trouble all afternoon.
"This is a very physical football team," said WT coach Don Carthel. "You can tell they're in the weight room. They're a tough bunch. We felt our quickness had to come into play or we'd get our nose bloodied."
The Eagles looked to be on the verge of opening up a major gash on the West Texas nose and psyche early in the third quarter. With 10:47 left in the frame, Housewright combined with senior wide receiver Anthony Capasso (Columbia Station, Ohio/St. Edward) on a 14-yard scoring pass. That upped the Ashland lead to 28-19.
AU's second drive of the half moved from the Ashland 25-yardline to the WT 9-yardline. At that point, Ashland led, 28-26. On third down, Housewright threw incomplete for Capasso. On fourth down, redshirt freshman kicker Cameron Casey (Rochester, Mich./Adams) was short on a 26-yard field goal. The momentum began to turn in the Buffs' favor at that point.
"Not getting any points on that second drive was brutal," admitted Owens.
The Buffaloes took over after that miss and went 80 yards in seven plays to score on a 7-yard pass from Vaughan to Allen. The 6-1, 190-pound Allen came to town with the reputation as being one of the best wide receivers in the country. He lived up to that billing. His touchdown catches covered 33, 14 and 7 yards.
"That's the one thing we'll look at," said Owens. "They took advantage of it. We probably needed to play tighter coverage outside than we did."
"They were playing man-to-man and Dustin just trusted me and threw the ball to me," said Allen.
Allen and Slaughter did some major damage, but the Eagles did slow down one of the most proficient offenses in the country. In the fourth quarter, West Texas had third-and-goal on the AU 1-yardline. Twice the Buffs sent running back Khiry Robinson into the line. Twice he came away with no gain.
"We played well enough on defense to win," sighed Owens. "We just didn't have the kind of day offensively we've had in the past."
"Their defensive line, we realized early on it would be tough to run the football," said Vaughan."We had to pass."
Ashland had to pass on its last possession, too and for several moments, it looked like the Eagles would be able to pull out a miracle. Gamble had the Buffaloes back on their heels. They had to give him a cushion because of his speed. Unfortunately for the Eagles,they got the ball with 38 seconds on the clock and 88 yards of turf in front of them. The Eagles didn't have any timeouts left. That's a major task, but Gamble and Housewright put the Eagles in a position to where they could think comeback.
"Brian Gamble's a winner," said Owens. "That's why we had him in at the end. He comes up with plays."
Much the same can be said about the 2012 season. This was the fifth trip to the postseason in school history, the third under Owens. This was AU's highest ranking since becoming an NCAA Division II institution. This year produced the first GLIAC football championship in school history. This is only the second team in school history to win 10 or more games in a season. This team was only the fourth at Ashland to end the regular season without a loss. With another play or two, that season might still be alive.
"It was the kind of day where you could second-guess coaching decisions, we had uncharacteristic penalties and our execution wasn't what it needed to be," said Owens. "Things seemed out of sync all day."