MOUNT VERNON – When everyone else got tired on Friday night, Wyatt Gregory got going.
Mount Vernon’s senior tailback dominated the second half against Marion Harding, bulldozing his way to first down after first down, even as players from both teams began to cramp in the late-August heat. His spirit – part Energizer bunny, part pitbull – ultimately propelled the Yellow Jackets to a dramatic come-from-behind win at Energy Field.
It was Mount Vernon’s first season-opening win since 2016. As the final buzzer sounded and the crowd roared into the night sky, it felt like much more than that.
“We haven’t beat them in [three] years, and then beating them on our home field, in front of everybody… that’s a good season opener,” Gregory said after the game, smiling ear to ear, drenched in sweat. “I’m really excited for everybody, and for the community to come together and see what we have in store for them.”
Mount Vernon’s 15-14 triumph had all the characteristics of a Hollywood drama. It could be called The Tale of Two Halves for the way in which the first 24 minutes differentiated from the last. Fortunately for Mount Vernon, the latter came to decide the night.
The Yellow Jackets came out with a renewed intensity in the second half, after falling behind 14-0 in the first. They received the ball first and proceeded to march 76 yards down the field, scoring for the first time in 2019 on a 10-yard scamper from senior quarterback Trey Davidson.
After Marion Harding committed a pre-snap penalty before the extra point, thus moving the ball up to the one-and-a-half yard line, coach Mike Kerr and the Yellow Jackets decided to go for two. It paid off. Gregory plunged into the end zone to bring the home team within 6.
Mount Vernon’s next possession was where Gregory truly made his mark. He carried the ball every down – including one where he raced 52 yards up the middle of the field, stiff-arming would-be tacklers deep into President territory – and eventually scored on a three-yard touchdown burst that tied the game. The point after by senior Alex Mullins made it 15-14 Mount Vernon with 2:34 remaining in the quarter.
Missed opportunities kept Mount Vernon from stretching the lead further. The Yellow Jackets reached the Marion Harding 16-yard-line on their next offensive possession, but penalties dragged them out of scoring position.
Marion Harding took over on downs and proceeded to scare the living daylights out of anyone wearing orange and black. The Presidents’ starting quarterback, junior Alex Blevins, went down with a leg injury earlier that half, but backup Brady Wink came in and moved the ball down the field with ease.
The sophomore guided Marion Harding to the Mount Vernon 2-yard-line with just over six minutes to play. The home crowd watched with bated breath as Wink went under center for second-and-goal. He dropped back and rolled to the right side before firing a missile toward the corner of the end zone.
Fortunately for Mount Vernon, defensive back Tristan Bowens read the play the whole way. The senior stepped in front of the receiver and picked the ball off in the end zone, keeping one foot inbounds as he snagged the most important pass of the game.
“They ran that comeback and he jumped it, and man, it was a thing of beauty,” Kerr said afterwards.
In a timeout leading up to the interception, Kerr had pulled Bowens aside and told him jump the comeback route, because Wink had been beating Mount Vernon with it all possession. “Just take a chance,” Kerr recalled telling Bowens. “We trust you.”
Bowens listened, and the rest is history.
“He’s such a great athlete,” Kerr said, “but it’s also a great testament to a kid who’s so coachable on the sidelines; who’s willing to make that change; who’s willing to say, ‘Hey, you tell me what to do, I’m gonna get it done.’”
Marion Harding had one final chance with 2:29 remaining, but the Yellow Jackets forced another turnover to seal the deal. Linebacker Ethan Laslo buckled Harding tailback DeAndre Ayers on a screen play, and fellow linebacker Ryan Tiell came from the side to strip the ball loose. Senior Will Small emerged from the scrum with the pigskin in his hand; he roared to the crowd and the crowd roared back.
Last year, when Mount Vernon lost at Marion Harding by nine points, it was the Yellow Jackets’ five turnovers that cost them the game. This year, the script was flipped.
“We had nine or ten guys flying to that football. And that’s what we preach all the time, those guys flying to that football,” Kerr said. “I was really just proud of that effort.”
After all the drama of the fourth quarter, it might have been easy to forget what sparked Mount Vernon’s comeback in the first place. Early in the third quarter, it was Gregory’s energy that got the ball rolling. The senior came out with a do-or-die mindset, and the team came out with a plan to free up the ground game after a scoreless first half.
Mount Vernon shifted its blocking scheme to cover Harding’s edge rushers. This freed Gregory up at the line of scrimmage, and he moved nimbly up the field behind his physical offensive line. Gregory finished the night with 223 yards on 32 carries, and most of those came in the second half.
“We thought that we could wear them down a little bit and we knew that Wyatt was ready to go,” Kerr said. “They gave us a little bit different defense than we anticipated, so it took us a while to kind of get our blocking where we wanted it. But once we figured it out, that really opened up some big seams.”
Gregory gave all the credit to his offensive line when discussing his breakout performance. Friday night came down to one word, he said: trust.
“I had trust in the line. I think coach had trust in the line, he had trust in me. And I think that’s honestly the biggest thing for our team at the moment, is we all have trust in each other,” Gregory said. “When you have trust in each other, you can make things happen.”
Mount Vernon also made key defensive adjustments at halftime. After giving up two big plays in the first half – a 64-yard touchdown run on the second play from scrimmage and a 32-yard touchdown pass with the receiver wide open – the Yellow Jackets changed up their coverage to keep the Presidents in front of them. Marion Harding’s biggest play in the second half was a 13-yard reception late in the third quarter.
For Mount Vernon, a team that won just three games last season, Friday night’s win was extra sweet. Kerr said he was proud of his team’s resiliency after getting down early. These are the kind of wins that can change a program’s culture, Kerr said. With 17 seniors on the roster, the fourth-year head coach believes this is the year it will happen.
“I hope that this is a change in their belief system,” Kerr said. “We’ve been preaching for four years that you just gotta believe. You gotta believe in yourself, that you can do this, you’re capable of doing this. And it was not a pretty game; you know, we made a lot of mistakes. But the fact that these kids never quit, never wavered in their belief, I think that says a lot about where we are as a program.”
WHAT’S NEXT: Mount Vernon (1-0) will head to Newark (0-1) next week. The Wildcats lost to Zanesville on Friday night, 35-0. Marion Harding (0-1) will face Jonathan Alder (1-0) on the road next week. The Pioneers escaped Philo with a 24-16 win in Week 1.
AROUND THE OCC:
- Orrville beat Wooster, 39-27
- Lexington beat Ontario, 47-21
- West Holmes beat Triway, 31-24
- Lake beat Ashland, 34-7
- Mansfield Senior beat Norwalk, 21-10
- Shelby beat Madison Comprehensive, 50-20