On all cylinders
GRANTS PASS — Even down 14-0 to the highest-scoring, most explosive offense in the state, Ashland High’s Mason Dow said he wasn’t worried. Instead, he was anticipating the Grizzlies’ response.
“They punched us in the mouth,” he said. “We had to punch back.”
And what a haymaker it was.
Ashland rebounded from Wilsonville’s fast start to score 56 straight points and turn the OSAA Class 5A state semifinal into a laugher with a 63-35 victory Saturday at Mel Ingram Field.
The blowout win earned Ashland its sixth straight championship game appearance and first since 1998. The fifth-seeded Grizzlies will play the sixth-seeded Summit Storm next Saturday, with the game site set to be announced today by the OSAA. The game will be a rematch of a defensive battle which the Grizzlies won, 15-14, Sept. 18 in Ashland.
Ashland looked like it was in trouble after Wilsonville opened the game by recovering a surprise onside kick and quickly scored two quick touchdowns highlighted by Connor Neville’s 49-yard touchdown pass to Jonny Neville. That gave the ninth-seeded Wildcats (10-2) a two touchdown lead less than four minutes into the game.
But Ashland flipped the game on its head after that, charging down the field with relentless precision en route to six consecutive touchdown drives and a 42-14 halftime lead. Senior quarterback Kyle Weinberg, who didn’t find out he had been named the starter until earlier in the day, threw two touchdown passes and ran for two more in the jailbreak opening half, and his 13-yard corner fade to James Hutchings on third-and-13 was a fitting cap.
“We struggled on our first drive,” Weinberg said, “but on the sideline we were calm. Nobody brought it up. And when we got back on offense we’re just like, ‘We gotta do our thing.’ We did our thing. The line blocked, running backs made plays, receivers made plays and we got it done.”
Desperate to claw its way back, Wilsonville advanced to the Ashland 10 on its next drive and called a time-out with three seconds to go, but Connor Neville’s square-out pass to Jonny Neville as the buzzer sounded wasn’t close and the Grizzlies roared into the locker room riding a wave of momentum.
Wilsonville, which was coming off an upset win over top seed Liberty, tried in vain to recapture its early rhythm, but the Wildcats blew two golden scoring opportunities in the first half and fumbled away another drive – one of their five turnovers on the day.
The second half was more of the same, as Ashland’s defense, led by Dow, Collin McGuire and Michael Pruitt, and rushing game quickly vanquished any hope that the game would turn into the shootout that both coaches anticipated. Instead, Ashland bullied its way into the Wilsonville backfield for seven sacks, two apiece by Dow and McGuire, held the 50-point-per-game Wildcats scoreless in a decisive 32-minute span and rushed for 288 yards and six TDs.
“We just talked about not panicking and just doing our thing,” Pruitt said. “Doing our one-eleventh, that’s basically it. … Our DB’s were doing a great job and I just took it upon myself that I needed to help them.”
“You can’t turn the ball over and expect to win games, especially at this level,” Wilsonville coach Adam Guenther said. “I tip my hat to Ashland. They played absolutely friggin incredible football. They could have very easily have given up being down 14-0. A little adversity hit and those kids dug in deeper and it says a lot about their program and what they have going on over there. Their kids are fighters.”
Dow led the Grizzlies with 109 yards rushing and one touchdown, a 7-yard wildcat run for Ashland’s first strike, Malik Pippa rushed for 90 yards and Weinberg completed 8 of 19 passes for 173 yards and four touchdowns. Pruitt had two catches for 66 yards, but the Grizzlies did most of their damage on the ground, opting to shred Wilsonville’s zone defense about seven-yards-per-carry at a time.
Wilsonville and its pass-heavy offense put up some big numbers itself, but the Wildcats came up short on almost every big play while the game was still in doubt. In the end, Wilsonville outgained Ashland 555 yards to 461.
Connor Neville, the Northwest Oregon Conference co-offensive player of the year, completed 26 of 48 passes for 371 yards and two touchdowns, but his pass at the end of the first half was off target and he was picked off in the end zone by Justin Robinson when the Wildcats were still only down 28-14.
The Wildcats also had two 100-yard receivers — Jonny Neville had nine catches for 143 yards and Harrison Steiger seven for 111 — but struggled to cash in, as the Grizzly defense held the Wildcats on 10 of their 12 third-down conversion attempts.
Ashland, meanwhile, was at its best when the stakes were high. The Grizzlies converted eight of their nine red-zone opportunities into touchdowns. On one of the most significant of those, Weinberg found an open Pruitt over the middle to cut Wilsonville’s lead to 14-12. The play came moments after the Wildcats jumped offside on third-and-5 to give the Grizzlies a first down, and three plays after Dow ripped off a 31-yard run.
Pruitt’s catch capped a 27-yard drive set up by Shashi Penn’s 22-yard punt return.
Ashland forced another Wilsonville three-and-out after that, then marched 64 yards in six plays, taking the lead for good, 20-14, when Weinberg juked out two Wildcats on his way to a 23-yard scramble.
“You just gotta give a lot of credit to our offensive line,” Ashland head coach Charlie Hall said.
On Wilsonville’s next drive, Ashland defensive back Tucker Atteberry stripped the ball away from Jonny Neville and Dow scooped it up and ran to the Wilsonville 8. Pippa ran in on the next play, making it 27-14.
Ashland added drives of 80 yards and 58 yards before the break.
Now, it’s on to the championship game, and a rematch with a Summit team that was equally impressive in a 41-7 win over second-seeded Crater. In their first meeting, the Storm outgained Ashland 381-254 but Ashland rode a third-quarter touchdown and some gritty defense to the nonconference victory.
“We’ve got one more to go,” Dow said. “It’s not over yet. We’re happy, but far from satisfied.”
Ashland 63, Wilsonville 35
At Mel Ingram Field, Grants Pass
W — Merrick 2 run (Kness kick)
W — N. Neville 49 pass from C. Neville (Kness kick)
A — Dow 7 run (kick failed)
A — Pruitt 5 pass from K. Weinberg (pass failed)
A — K. Weinberg 23 run (Pruitt pass from K. Weinberg)
A — Pippa 8 run (Penn pass from K. Weinberg)
A — K. Weinberg 1 run (K. Weinberg kick)
A — Hutchings 13 pass from K. Weinberg (K. Weinberg kick)
A — Pippa 4 run (K. Weinberg kick)
W — C. Neville 1 run (Kness kick)
W — Merrick76 pass from C. Neville (Kness kick)
A — Penn 5 pass from K. Weinberg (K. Weinberg kick)
W — Craig 2 run (Kness kick)
Ashland — Dow 13-109, Pippa 10-90, Swanson 1-44, K. Weinberg 7-36, Hyatt 1-13, Hutchings 2-5, Penn 2- (-9), team 2-0.
Wilsonville — Merrick 11-78, Benedick 8-76, Craig 3-29, C. Neville 9-(-56).
Ashland — K. Weinberg 8-19-1 173.
Wilsonville — C. Neville 26-48-2 371, Gomez 2-2-0 57.
Ashland — Pruitt 2-66, Shibley 1-34, Elshalom 1-29, Hutchings 2-23, Penn 2-21.
Wilsonville — J. Neville 9-143, Steiger 7-111, Merrick 2-82, Altenhofen 6-49, Benedick 4-43.