Second-Half Comeback Propels Athens To Division III Title Game

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The Athens Bulldogs have been an offensive powerhouse all season long, averaging over 60 points per game in the regular season.

After a slow start in the Division III state semifinal on Friday, the offense–led by quarterback Joe Burrow–showed every bit of its talent, scoring 27 second-half points to defeat the two-time defending state champion Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary’s 34-31 in front of a packed house at Woody Hayes Quaker Stadium in New Philadelphia.

It may be hard believing in a Bulldogs win considering the position they were in after the first half.  

The Bulldogs (14-0) went to the locker room glaring at a 17-7 deficit to the Irish, which was helped by two Bulldog turnovers deep in their own territory, which the Irish turned into early touchdowns.

“It was the worst half of football we’ve played all season,” Burrow said after the game.

In the second half, however, the Bulldogs’ offense began to click, especially in the final eight minutes of the game.  

“We started going faster and getting to the line quicker,” Burrow said, “and it got us in rhythm.”

Trailing 31-21 Burrow led the Bulldogs down on an 86-yard drive in just 1:05, which was capped off by an 8-yard touchdown pass from Burrow to Ryan Luehrman to cut the deficit to just 31-28. It was Ryan’s third touchdown catch of the night, where he also finished with 10 catches for 125 yards on the night.

Then came the biggest possession of the season for the Bulldogs defense.

With the Irish running through and around them all night to the tune of 317 rushing yards and four touchdowns, the Bulldogs needed a stop to give the offense a chance to take the lead for the win.

And the ‘Dogs did just that, forcing a three-and-out and punt by the Irish, giving Athens the ball back on their own 21-yard line with 5:16 left in the game.

Burrow once again worked his magic, moving the ball methodically down the field before hitting Zacciah Saltzmen with a perfectly placed 12-yard go-ahead touchdown pass to put Athens in front 34-31, sending the Bulldog crowd into a frenzy.

“When the defense go that last stop, there was no doubt in my mind that we were going to go right down and score,” said Burrow, who finished the game 32-44 passing for 324 yards and four touchdowns.

And then the Bulldogs caught a break, as Adam Luehrman forced a Irish fumble on the ensuing kickoff return, which was recovered by Athens’ Trae Williams on the Irish 41 yard line with just over one minute remaining, deflating the Irish’s sideline.

Athens couldn’t capitalize on the field position, and turned it over on downs, giving the Irish one last shot to at least attempt and tie the game with a field goal.

But just four plays into the Irish’s last attempt, a pass by Irish quarterback Dominic Davis was tipped and intercepted by Williams, sealing the win and a trip to the state final for the Bulldogs.

“I caught it and made sure my feet were in, and then realized holy cow we’re going to state,” Williams said after the game. “It’s been the goal since day one and it’s a surreal feeling.”

Williams finished the night with 146 rushing yards and one touchdown on 23 carries in the game, as well as the two takeaways on defense.

It’s now on to the Division III championship game for the Bulldogs, who will take on Toledo Central Catholic (12-2) on Thursday night at 7:30 p.m. at Ohio Stadium in Columbus.