PHILLIPSBURG — J.B. Covington has no problem complementing the Norton Bluejays for being one of the state’s best teams in Class 3A, even possibly 4A. He knew his “little, old, measly” 2-1A Phillipsburg Panthers had to play well in Friday’s Mid-Continent League matchup just to hang just with their high-powered rival.
Lucas Melvin’s Bluejays might have bested Covington’s Panthers in a 7-6 decision Friday in Phillipsburg, but his team survived a fight for the ages just one week after putting up 500 yards and 54 points against Ellis.
“I’m not pleased with the loss, but I thought our kids competed well,” Covington said. “We had opportunities to hang our heads and feel sorry for ourselves but I think we grew up tonight and I think we came together a lot as a team tonight. A great defensive ballgame by both teams.”
A defensive ballgame it was. At least nine fumbles were recorded between the two sides. By the 7:24 mark of the first quarter, each time already had two fumble recoveries and had failed to pick up any positive yardage. Phillipsburg’s first two plays from scrimmage, including the first play of the game, resulted in lost fumbles. Norton senior running back Jordan Dole then coughed a ball just more than two minutes into the game.
Phillipsburg’s third play from scrimmage found the turf again, though it was recovered cleanly, and forced Covington to call a timeout to hash things over with his backfield.
“Our kids were wound to the hill when we came out of the locker room,” Covington said. “Sometimes you get trying too hard and forget about the fundamentals. Ball security is a big fundamental for us.”
Just moments later, it was another fumble by Dole that gave Phillipsburg the ball back.
Once both teams finally settled in near the end of the first, the Bluejays’ offense showed the skills that helped them to a 40-point victory against Ellis in Week 1.
Standing on his own 32-yard line, sophomore quarterback Jace Ruder found senior running back Gavin Lively on the left sideline.
Lively eventually hurdled a defender and took the ball 48 yards. Working inside the red zone on fourth and goal, Ruder and Lively were unable to connect and turned the ball over on downs to end the scoreless first quarter.
After a Panthers punt, the Bluejays’ offense continued to look in sync, converting two fourth-and-short situations. On fourth and goal, Ruder’s pass found Phillipsburg sophomore linebacker John Gower for a third Bluejay turnover in the first half. Ruder completed 9 of 24 for 127 yards on the night.
After forcing another punt, Ruder put Norton on the board on the first play on the ensuing drive. Ruder lofted a floater to junior receiver Tyus Henson, who made a leaping grab in space down the left sideline and walked into the endzone for the 37-yard score to give Norton a 7-0 lead with 4:10 remaining in the first half. Henson finished with three catches on the evening for a team-high 60 receiving yards.
With freshman quarterback Trey Sides on in relief of sophomore quarterback Kirk Coomes for the second quarter, the Panthers made work with good field position on a kickoff return by senior Conner Weinman. Sides danced around in the backfield before finding an open seam and found paydirt on a 30-yard scamper to answer the Bluejays with 1:31 remaining in the half. A missed PAT ended up being the deciding point, though both squads had multiple chances to score with the amount of turnovers and mistakes made on the night.
Despite just six points, Covington — whose squad moved to 1-1 — felt his offense respond with Sides under center and believes he found his long-term solution instead of splitting reps with Coomes.
“I think we got some questions answered offensively tonight,” Covington said. “I think we’ll have more of a direction with what we want to do next week and as we move forward. We’ll find a way to get our athletes on the field. … We just like Trey’s escapability if we found the need to throw. With all the guys they had in the box against our wishbone, we felt like we would have to try and throw the ball a little bit. He has a lot of athletic ability to escape from the pocket, not a super fast guy but he eludes people and makes good decisions.”
The ensuing kickoff found Lively fielding the ball and taking it near the left hash. A Phillipsburg defender brought him to the ground and he immediately signaled over Melvin and asked for a stretcher. Lively left the game with what he said was a dislocated kneecap that would allow him to return within two weeks.
The Norton drive ended on a third fumble by Dole to send both teams to the locker room. Given Dole’s history with fumbles (21 over the last two seasons), Covington made sure his team attacked him when he had the ball.
“Yeah, we kinda knew he had a tendency to put the football on the ground every once in awhile. But we did it plenty ourselves,” Covington said light-heartedly with a chuckle.
Both teams emerged from the locker room with fire on defense with the determination to come away with what Dole calls the biggest rivalry he has ever been a part of.
“I moved here from Nebraska three years ago and this is still the best rivalry I’ve ever been a part of,” Dole said. “They’re tough, they ran the ball well, they have great players. … We noticed we gotta dig deep no matter how much it hurts or how it is to get back up.”
The Panthers sacked Ruder on third and 10 on the opening drive of the second half. After a 54-yard rush from senior fullback Brock Means, who finished with a team-high 38 rushing yards Bluejays sophomore defensive back Tevin Petrie picked off Trey Sides inside the 10-yard line.
From that point on, the Bluejays used what they discussed following Lively’s exit from the game to propel themselves defensively.
“Our guys got fired up is what they did,” Melvin said. “Gavin’s their brother. They got fired up and they went out and wanted to win it for him.”
“(Our fire) came back up again when we saw one one of the foundations of our team go down,” Dole added. “He’s always pushing us, he’s always motivating us. Seeing him go down, it sucked. It honestly decide because he would trade places with any of us at any time.
“When we saw what happened and we looked at each, we said it’s no more about us, it’s a team. If we can fight through that, we can fight through anything.”
After methodically moving their way into the red zone, the Bluejays again coughed up the ball on a fumble by Petrie. The sides traded punts before Ruder fumbled to the ball away again on the first play of the fourth-quarter drive.
Sides and the Phillipsburg offense were able to avoid Dole and junior defensive lineman Jacob Green by running opposite of where they lined up as much as possible, just as Covington designed.
“We had a general idea what they like to do with (Green),” Covington said. “We were trying to figure out where they were putting him and Dole. We felt like them two were the dominant ones of their defense once they lost Lively. … Green and Dole were in the back of our minds and we were trying to find them.”
When it looked like Phillipsburg could force a late Norton punt and obtain good field position, Ruder showed his dynamic skills to seal the game. On third and 21 from the Norton 12, Ruder escaped from the pocket and ran toward the first-down marker on the sideline for a 32-yard rush with three minutes to play.
“When I dropped back, I saw the middle linebacker blitzing the B-gap so I just did a B-gap escape, moved over and and saw the hole and I took it. I just moved the chains, you know,” Ruder said. “When Gavin went down, that was a special moment for our team. I think we took a step forward tonight.
The Bluejays eventually gave the ball to Phillipsburg inside its own 10 with deep passes as the only answer, but three passes failed to find a Panther and allowed Norton to escape Phillipsburg with a narrow victory and 2-0 start to the season.
On the heels of a 35-0 victory against TMP-Marian in Week 1, Covington said these hard-fought losses do the team more good than any blowout win.
“I think we made huge steps this week,” Covington said. “We had a great week of practice. We saw our kids come together tonight. At times it didn’t look like it offensively, but defensively, we really came together. I had a lot of young kids on the field. Losing by one, it hurts and it hurts our kids. I think we improved tremendously tonight and from the first week.”
And while it wasn’t the comfort of a wide-margined victory for Green and the Bluejays, he has never had more joy on a football field than he did Friday night, as he told his team following the game.
“I think it’s more of a come-to-Jesus because when Gavin was down, everyone was down you could see,” Green said. “I had tears rolling down, Jordan had tears rolling and it was the will and the mindset to get past that adversity. … When Jordan said something, I have to get in there too because he always gets everybody jacked.
“I think it was just really fun because it was a brother thing.”