BRIDGEPORT — Facing its toughest situation of the season to date on the road against No. 2 Bridgeport and down two starters, No. 1 Fairmont Senior turned to the simplest solution: Put the offense in the hands of budding star quarterback Gage Michael and ask the big boys up front to do what they do best in the trenches.
Michael torched the Indians for 277 yards on the ground and 123 more yards through the air with five total touchdowns, while Fairmont Senior’s front on both sides of the ball left Bridgeport black and blue en route to a 34-15 Polar Bears victory on Thursday at Wayne Jamison Field.
“It doesn’t look fancy,” Fairmont Senior coach Nick Bartic said, “but it’s a good job won by our O-line getting blocks, our receivers getting blocks downfield and then Gage doing what he does. He makes something simple look pretty good.”
On every snap for the Polar Bears (4-0), a detonation by Michael lurked either by way of his arm or his legs as he rushed for TDs covering 90, 54 and 43 yards, while tossing TD passes of 64 and 41 yards. All told, FSHS’s offense racked up 398 total yards on just 30 plays for a 13.2 yard-per-play average which includes a pair of kneel downs to end the game. Michael was responsible for 400 yards of total offense himself, with a 2-yard run by Zach Toothman and a minus-4-yard run by Camden Longwell the only plays all night in which Michael didn’t either run it himself or attempt a pass.
“Personnel-wise being down a (running) back (Kieshawn Cottingham), that’s going to change how you approach a game,” Bartic said, “and fortunately Gage is good enough and tough enough to carry the load while still playing defense. He does it all.”
“Losing Kieshawn was a big blow to our team, but we just trusted the process,” said Michael, who also had eight tackles and an interception on defense. “We got another formation working for us, the coaches put in a great game plan, and my offensive line, they did an amazing job tonight.”
Fairmont Senior’s front five of Zach Frazier, Dom Owens, Lance Payton, Jason Howard and Nate Kowalski, who moved back to tackle exclusively Thursday after playing an H-back role the first three weeks, ate up Bridgeport’s front on designed QB runs for Michael.
Each of Michael’s three TD runs pierced Bridgeport’s front seven from a different angle. His 90-yard score on the team’s first play from scrimmage came on one of his pattened isos right up the middle. The 54-yarder on the second play of FSHS’s second drive was off left tackle, and the 43-yarder midway through the third quarter was around right end before Michael broke free down the sideline.
“We just weren’t getting off blocks,” said Bridgeport coach John Cole, whose Indians yielded 275 rush yards to the Polar Bears on just 18 attempts. “They put us in 1-on-1s and our linebackers, our defensive line, they couldn’t get off blocks.”
The O-line dominance from the Polar Bears manifested in a highlight frenzy early on, with Fairmont Senior scoring three touchdowns on its first four plays of the game. The Polar Bears opened with the 90-yard keeper by Michael on their first play for a score. Then came the 54-yarder by Michael on the team’s third play for their second TD and finally a 64-yard TD pass to Kayson Nealy on a go route in 1-on-1 coverage on the outside on the fourth play.
“That was huge,” Michael said of the big-play trifecta which saw FSHS put the Indians (3-1) in a 13-0 hole and then rebuild the lead to 20-6 after a 15-play, 71-yard third series by Bridgeport had sliced the margin to 13-6. “The crowd was going crazy, we had all the momentum, it was ecstatic for us.”
That 15-play, 71-yard march by the Indians sandwiched between FSHS’s quick strikes was a gut check for Bridgeport’s under-center, Power-I run game which featured three backs making up the Power-I instead of the standard two behind quarterback Devin Vandergrift. The three-headed running back tandem of Brian Henderson (74 yards), Trey Pancake (71 yards) and John Love (52 yards) ticked off a series of chunk gains behind the Tribe O-line on the drive before Henderson capped it with a 3-yard run with nine seconds left in the first quarter.
“It starts off with a bunch of big plays, you get a two-touchdown lead and guys kind of feel comfortable,” Bartic said of the lapse. “They made their adjustments and they started stuffing the ball on us. So you want that big start, but at the same time, you have to stay the course.”
Even after the 64-yard dime from Michael to Nealy swelled Fairmont Senior’s lead back to 13 at 20-6, Bridgeport’s rushing attack continued to gain traction. The Indians stitched together consecutive drives thereafter that covered 46 and 38 yards on 11 and six plays, respectively, but a fumble on the first that was recovered by FSHS’s Will Runyan and then a bobbled snap on the second that resulted in a 2-yard loss on third down gave Bridgeport just three points to show for the back-to-back possessions.
At halftime, Fairmont Senior maintained an 11-point lead at 20-9.
And in the second half, Bridgeport’s offense petered out beneath the crushing weight of Frazier and Owens in the middle and Kowalski, fellow linebacker Nicky Scott and Michael charging downhill. For the game, the Indians amassed 208 rush yards on 57 total attempts, equating to a fairly mediocre 3.6 yards per carry.
“Our (starting) center went down and that wasn’t good,” Cole deadpanned. “And Fairmont’s not stupid, so they put their D-I athlete right across from our backup who’s never played before. Not real hard to figure out there.”
Frazier bullied his way to ball carriers repeatedly for minimal 1- and 2-yard gains that threw Bridgeport’s run game off schedule. He finished the night with 12 tackles, including one for a loss. Owens clogged up plenty of space as well, totaling seven tackles. Kowalski added another eight stops and Scott posted 10 tackles with a sack, while Jayden Richardson had five tackles filling in for Cottingham in the secondary.
Bridgeport’s first two drives of the second half ended in punts, one of which was the team’s third three-and-out of the game after a sack by Scott that backed the Indians up to their own 10. FSHS took over for their second series of the third quarter at the BP 39 as a result, and after a 4-yard loss by Longwell on first down, Michael burst free for 43 yards and his third rushing TD.
Trailing 27-6, Bridgeport’s defense got a three-and-out, and after a big return on the punt, the Indians took over at the FSHS 19. They made quick work in the red zone and Vandergrift’s 5-yard bootleg cut Fairmont Senior’s lead back to 12 at 27-15 entering the fourth quarter.
But Michael still had one last long-range arrow in his quiver, and with FSHS at the BP 41 with just over 10 minutes to play, he let it fly. Much like Nealy’s 64-yard TD earlier, Michael had Longwell 1-on-1 to the right and he took full advantage, dropping one in the bucket over Longwell’s shoulder that the senior receiver turned into the final score of the night with a dive for the pylon.
“With this game and all the build up to it, it’s good to come out with the win,” said Bartic, whose Polar Bears have now won four straight over Bridgeport dating back to the J.L. Abbott era. “With that said, there have been quite a few seasons where we end up seeing each other again down the road.”
Email Bradley Heltzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @bradheltzTWV.
Fairmont Senior 34, Bridgeport 15
BHS 6 3 6 0 — 15
FSHS 13 7 7 7 — 34
Records: Bridgeport (3-1), Fairmont Senior (4-0)
FS — Gage Michael 90-yard run (Pass failed)
FS — Michael 54-yard run (Frankie Smith kick)
BP — Brian Henderson 3-yard run (Kick failed)
FS — Michael 64-yard pass to Kayson Nealy (Smith kick)
BP — Austin Springer 30-yard field goal
FS — Michael 43-yard run (Smith kick)
BP — Devin Vandergrift 5-yard run (Pass failed)
FS — Michael 41-yard pass to Camden Longwell (Smith kick)
TEAM STATISTICS BP FS
Total first downs 18 7
by rush/pass/penalty 16/1/1 5/2/0
Rushing plays 57 18
net yards 208 275
yards per rush 3.6 15.3
Passes (comp/att/Int) 1/6/1 5/12/1
yards passing 37 123
Total plays 63 30
net yards 245 398
yards per play 3.9 13.2
Penalties/yards 4/20 9/60
RUSHING — Fairmont Senior: Michael 14-277 3 TD, Zach Toothman 1-2, Longwell 1(-4), TEAM 2-0. Bridgeport: Henderson 18-74 TD, Trey Pancake 16-71, John Love 11-52, Cameron Cole 4-9, Vandergrift 5-1 TD, TEAM 2-(-4).
PASSING — Fairmont Senior: Michael 5-12, 123 yards, 2 TD, INT. Bridgeport: Vandergrift 1-6, 37 yards, INT.
RECEIVING — Fairmont Senior: Nealy 3-79 TD, Longwell 1-41 TD, Malachi West 1-3. Bridgeport: Sam Romano 1-37.