NUTTER FORT — From the in-game battles to the post-play skirmishes, Robert C. Byrd and Fairmont Senior went at it in a rare Sunday football showdown that felt more like it proved which team was the lesser of two evils rather than the better of two contenders.
The ugliness of repeated after-play scuffles and trash talk overshadowed the shine of individual performances and highlights. And the frustrations over penalties and lulls outweighed the ecstasy over touchdowns and big plays.
Ultimately, though, an opportunistic FSHS defense and a timely FSHS offense propelled the Polar Bears to a 28-13 victory over the Flying Eagles in Nutter Fort.
“It was sloppy and kind of ugly,” said Fairmont Senior coach Nick Bartic, whose Polar Bears have now logged huge victories for postseason purposes each of the past two weeks after defeating Spring Valley Oct. 9, “but that happens when you have two competitive teams going at it sometimes; you end up getting some not-so-fluid drives throughout the game and that’s what happened for both teams. Ultimately, it was a good job in finding a way to win.”
Both the Polar Bears (4-2) and Flying Eagles (4-2) were flagged for a flurry of dead-ball personal fouls and illegal conduct penalties throughout the game, and in the closing minutes, both teams also had a player ejected after an altercation. Each team also lost a starting offensive lineman due to injury — tackle Aidan Green for FSHS and center Charles Legget for RCB — and both offenses squandered multiple chances, Fairmont Senior with turnovers and Byrd with red zone foibles.
But with the game hanging in the balance, Fairmont Senior star quarterback Gage Michael and a couple of first-year Polar Bears turned the tide before the FSHS defense brought the hammer to nail down the team’s third-consecutive win after a 1-2 start to the season.
Michael finished the game 14-of-22 for 237 yards and four touchdown passes with another 149 rushing yards to offset a pair of first-half interceptions by RCB’s Bryson Lucas. Three of those four TDs went to freshmen Jayden Cheriza and Dylan Ours, including back-to-back scores in the fourth quarter that helped Fairmont Senior pull away after Byrd cut the margin to 14-13 late in the third quarter.
“Having somebody like that, it makes a big difference. When we needed someone to make a play, he was able to do that,” said Bartic of Michael who threw a 45-yard TD to Evan Dennison, a 19-yard TD to Ours, and 20-yard and 48-yard scores to Cheriza. “Then, that catch by Dylan while taking a hard shot, that’s a strong-man play for a freshman, and then, of course, Cheriza catching his (touchdowns) were big plays; that’s where they’ve really shown how they’ve grown as the season has gone on and anytime you get productivity out of freshmen like that, you’re obviously going to benefit from that.
“But testament to (Robert C. Byrd), man, they were ready to play, and it was a physical, hard-fought football game.”
Byrd delivered the game’s initial blow on its very first series when star running back Jeremiah King took a swing pass from quarterback Xavier Lopez and rumbled 32 yards for a touchdown, and, then after trailing 14-7 at the break, the Eagles also scored the first touchdown of the second half on a 15-yard scramble by Lopez. But on the ensuing extra point to knot the game at 14-14, Byrd was called for a penalty that pushed the kick back and eventually led to a miss and a 14-13 deficit.
The PAT was just one slip-up, but it was a microcosm of the Eagles’ bundle of missed chances. On three separate occasions, Byrd turned it over on downs in FSHS territory and also had another fourth down in the FSHS red zone that ended with an Alex Brophy interception.
“We could’ve won, but we beat ourselves,” said Byrd coach Josh Gorrell. “We got banged up and we had injuries to begin with and then we had stupid penalties and just lacked maturity on the field. It’s on us, it’s just that simple.”
Lopez led the Eagles’ offense, going 16-of-28 for 184 yards with a passing and rushing touchdown, but Byrd’s vaunted run game behind King was mostly bottled up except for a 14-play drive to open the second half that, to Gorrell’s utter dismay, stalled out on downs at the FSHS 5 yard-line. King finished the game with just 83 yards on 18 carries, though he did catch six passes.
“They did a good job of taking what was given to them,” Bartic said of RCB’s offense, “but ultimately our defense made the stops they needed to when they needed to.”
Fairmont Senior’s front seven hemmed in one of the state’s premier rushing attacks in King and company for a second straight week after it also did so last week against Spring Valley’s road-grading ground game. And while Lopez made some plays through the air, most notably to Lucas, who caught seven passes for 87 yards, Fairmont Senior’s pass rush also had him on the run, sacking him four times and pressuring a handful of other throws. Bralyn Michael collected a pair of those FSHS sacks, while Koby Toothman and linebacker Nicky Scott also each tallied a sack.
“I think we really matured a lot from last week (against Spring Valley); that was a big win,” Bartic said, “but then the next issue, with having a lot of younger guys, is handling that success, and obviously we did not come out ready today after having that success. I think that’s the next hurdle we have to cover as a team; we still have to grow up a little bit more. But hopefully, after this tough stretch, we’ll use it to peak at the right time.”