ASHLAND — The third-ranked Ashland Grizzlies didn't get the dominating performance they were looking for against Willamette. Maybe a conference championship will help take the sting away.
Ashland used a big-play defense and methodical offense to outscore Willamette 20-0 in the second half en route to a 34-20 homecoming comeback win Friday, clinching no worse than a tie for the Midwestern League championship in front of a packed house at Walter A. Phillips Field.
The upset-minded Wolverines (2-6, 1-5 MWL) jumped out to a 14-0 lead midway through the opening quarter and led 20-14 at the half, but Ashland fought back to reclaim the lead for good on Danial White's 11-yard touchdown pass to Shashi Penn on third-and-goal from the Willamette 11 with 3:17 to go in the third quarter.
Ashland (8-0, 5-0) marched 85 yards to tack on an insurance touchdown with 5:40 left in the game — Ryne Robitz capped it with a 3-yard run — and an interception by Carter Glick less than two minutes later all but sealed the Grizzlies' first Midwestern title since they joined the league in 2011 and first league title since the Grizzlies won the two-team Southern Oregon Hybrid 5A in 2010.
Ashland coach Charlie Hall said his halftime speech was simple: "Stay calm and don't panic. Last time we were down against Marist at halftime and we came out and made some adjustments and played pretty well. This is a little different though. There's a lot of distractions with homecoming. It's one of the hardest games for us to prepare for, especially against a good opponent."
Springfield beat Marist 41-21 Friday to remain one game behind Ashland in the MWL standings with one week to go in the regular season. Ashland travels to face Eagle Point (4-3, 2-2) next Friday, while Springfield (6-2, 4-1) is at Churchill (2-4, 2-2).
White completed 15 of 26 passes for 202 yards and two touchdowns and rushed for 38 yards and two more scores, while senior defensive lineman Tyree Heesacker was a terror on the other side of the ball with five sacks, including three in a row in the first quarter as the Wolverines were looking to add to their early 14-0 lead. Robitz rushed for 95 yards and Sebastian Warren led the Grizzlies with 61 yards receiving, including a 49-yard bomb that set up Ashland's last touchdown.
Junior quarterback Kosey Mitchell completed 20 of 32 passes for 276 yards and three touchdowns for Willamette, which gained 332 yards but shot itself in the foot by committing 10 penalties for 76 yards and turning the ball over three times.
Willamette receiver Darius Jackson had five catches for 111 yards, including a 48-yard touchdown grab that gave the Wolverines a 14-0 lead with 6:49 to go in the opening quarter. That came four minutes after Willamette capped its opening drive with a 21-yard flee-flicker from Mitchell to Cam Ferguson, who won a jump ball against two Grizzlies in the corner of the end zone.
"Jackson's a good player, and really if one guy is a mismatch out there in a football game and you can't cover him, it's a big mismatch," Hall said. "You give them credit. They found some things that they could work on and attacked us and we gotta go back and work on some things."
Willamette fumbled the ball away on its opening drive of the second half and the Grizzlies took advantage, scoring on White's 8-yard keeper six plays later to tie the game.
Willamette went three-and-out on its next possession, and Ashland kept its momentum going with a 62-yard, 10-play drive capped by Penn's acrobatic leap into the end zone.
"We just took advantage of what they gave us," Willamette coach Adam Kennybrew said. "We executed at a high level, our kids were extremely excited and motivated to come down and show what we're capable of doing. I think that that's what happened.
"The turning point was when we came out for two offensive series (in the third quarter) and we didn't take advantage of it from an offensive standpoint. When that happened, they took advantage of it, they were able to score, we did not score and that kind of shifted the momentum. When you have a team that's already a championship-caliber team, you need to take advantage of every opportunity."