COLUMBUS GROVE — Defense and special teams took center stage in Friday’s Northwest Conference football opener between Columbus Grove and visiting Allen East.
Just when each offensive unit looked to be on the move Friday, the opposing defensive unit stepped up to squash the momentum.
Allen East claimed the early lead, scored late in the game and then hung on for a thrilling 14-11 victory at Clymer Stadium.
With the win, Allen East improves to 4-0 overall and 1-0 in the NWC. Columbus Grove falls to 1-3 overall and 0-1 in conference play.
“They had a heck of a game plan,” Allen East head coach Wesley Schroeder said. “We were struggling throwing the ball. … I don’t know how many completions we had, but for a spread team – that’s not a good thing. These guys are competitors. I love this team as much as any team I have been around. They just find a way.”
The Mustangs’ first-half touchdown came by way of special teams.
Logan McCluer ran a kick-off back 93 yards to give his team the 4-point halftime advantage.
Columbus Grove turned the ball over on its first possession of the contest.
Allen East took the ball over on the Columbus Grove 35-yard line. However, the Mustangs were unable to capitalize on the Columbus Grove miscue.
Columbus Grove took over on downs.
However, the Bulldogs were eventually forced to punt the ball back to Allen East.
On Allen East’s second possession of the game, the Mustangs’ drive was cut short on an interception thrown by quarterback Bryce Belcher to Columbus Grove defensive back Gabe Clement.
However, Columbus Grove was unable to capitalize on the turnover.
The Mustangs’ defensive unit eventually stopped the Bulldogs from getting into the end zone, on a fourth-and-goal play, late in the first quarter.
“We pride ourselves on that,” Schroeder said about his defense. “We allow them to have opportunities, then we try to make opportune plays.”
Columbus Grove finally got on the scoreboard.
Columbus Grove quarterback Blake Reynolds broke loose for a 64-yard run to set his team up at Allen East’s 31-yard line. The Bulldogs finally erased the goose egg with a 26-yard field goal by Rece Verhoff, giving Columbus Grove the 3-0 lead with 5:12 left to play in the first half.
Allen East answered Columbus Grove’s field goal, on the ensuing kick-off, with the 93-yard run to pay dirt by McCluer.
Allen East eventually slipped out with a hard-fought 7-3 halftime lead.
In the first half, Reynolds led all rushers with 96 yards on 11 carries. The junior signal-caller ended the game with 137 yards on 23 carries.
In the first 24 minutes of action, Belcher was 8-of-22 passing for 68 yards, with two interceptions. He ended the night 15 of 39 for 114 yards.
Early into the third quarter, Allen East got the ball back off a Columbus Grove fumble. The Mustangs started their drive on the Columbus Grove 49-yard line.
However, Allen East was forced to punt.
The Allen East defense kept Reynolds at bay in the second half. However, Columbus Grove freshman running back Jaden Daniels came in to ignite the Columbus Grove running attack.
Daniels rushed for 60 yards – all in the second half.
However, Allen East’s defense stepped up when Columbus Grove got into the red zone, early in the fourth quarter.
The Bulldogs got the ball back with 7:50 left to play in regulation.
However, Allen East’s defense came up big on that Columbus Grove drive.
Reynolds scrambled to his right, under pressure. He threw the ball, but was intercepted by Cole Fletcher, who ran it back 25 yards for a TD. With the extra point by Neth, the Mustangs owned an 11-point lead with a little more than six minutes left to play in the game.
The Bulldogs had one more possession. This time, Columbus Grove cashed in. Reynolds eventually ran it in from one yard out to cut it to 14-9.
On the two-point conversion, Reynolds found Gabe Clement open for the reception, that cut the Allen East lead to three.
The Mustangs were able to hang on for the thrilling victory.
“Grove is a heck of a team,” Schroeder said. “They have some guys over there and (Columbus Grove) coach (Andy) Shafer does a great job. We’re 1-0 in the NWC. … That’s all I know.”
Reach The Lima News sports department at 567-242-0451.