No rush game, no problem.
Gehlen Catholic quarterback Taylor Smith threw three touchdowns and the defense pitched a shutout as the Jays moved closer to a winning season by knocking off Marcus-Meriden-Cleghorn 24-2 Friday in Marcus.
The Jays improved to 4-4 overall and 3-4 in Class A District 1 with the win, setting up a chance to finish above .500 heading into the final game of the season against Westwood.
Having fallen out of the postseason race relatively early in the year, finishing with a winning record and building for the future were coach Tony Gunter’s major objectives for the Jays over the final weeks. Gehlen took steps forward in accomplishing both goals Friday with the win and some solid performances out of youngsters.
“After the Galva game, we talked to the kids about getting a winning record. They bought into it and now they’re pretty fired up about doing it,” Gunter said. “We still have a little to prove and a ton to learn, so we’re going to practice hard and hopefully have a real good effort against Westwood.”
The Jays had good efforts all around Friday, starting with an all-underclassmen offensive line of sophomore Drew Kellen at right guard, freshman Eric Berkenpas at right tackle, freshman Chris Eral at center, junior Alex Westergard at left tackle and sophomore Cole Heissel at left guard. The Eagles brought heat on nearly every play and Gehlen was fighting to give Smith time to throw.
“It was a tough situation. We hadn’t really faced a team that (blitzed) a lot and we weren’t really prepared for that,” Gunter said. “Once we got to halftime, we made some adjustments. They’re going to learn from that and it’s going to help us down the road.”
With Marcus’ constant pressure, Gunter was forced to change the game plan somewhat. Instead of going down the field to Chris Gabriel, Gehlen looked to the shorter passes on the edge. Smith struggled early, but ended up completing 10-of-23 passes for 167 yards.
“It was a matter of doing something really quick, because we didn’t have much time. We started throwing some bubble passes and quick screen passes. Those plays are good if the kids can make a guy miss and that’s what happened a couple times.”
Eric Rohe - the reigning Class A INS player of the week - was on the receiving end of five of Smith’s short passes, turning them into 117 yards and two touchdowns.
“With that short passing game, the plays aren’t real long and it takes an athlete to make yards out of them” Gunter said. “Chris was a little under the weather, so we decided to use Eric on the outside. He does a nice job of turning 5 and 10-yard passes into big plays. Eric’s capable of doing that just about every time he touches the ball.”
Smith’s first big connection of the night with Rohe came at the 1:55 mark of the first quarter on a 20-yard scoring strike.
Gehlen sat on the 7-0 lead until the 8:10 mark of the second quarter, when Jordan Sitzmann drilled a 22-yard field goal from the left hash. The field goal was set up by a fake punt play on which Rohe broke off a 37-yard run to the Marcus 45.
The Jays picked up a first down after the Rohe run, but the drive stalled deep in Eagles’ territory.
“I was leaning towards going for it,” Gunter said. “But it put us up two scores and it was a good decision. Jordan knocked it through there and gave us some confidence going into halftime.”
Gehlen held the 10-0 lead until late in the third quarter when a good series by the defense set the offense up in a difficult spot. The Jays stopped Marcus at 4-yard line and the Eagles attempted a field goal. The snap was botched and Gehlen wrapped up the Marcus runner, taking over on downs at the 1. Two pre-snap penalties pushed the Jays back onto their own goal line and Cody Campbell was then tackled in the end zone for a safety.
The safety would be Marcus’ only score of the night, however, as Gehlen limited the Eagles to 207 yards of total offense while forcing five turnovers.
“That’s something we haven’t done well this year is force turnovers,” Gunter said. “Coach (Paul) Ellensohn was blitzing quite a bit and that effected Marcus’ ability to throw good passes. Sometimes you can get burned doing that, but he can keep doing it as far as I’m concerned. This is the time to teach our kids to be aggressive at the end of the season, because it goes into next year.”
Sophomore Adam Nemmers - making his first start at corner back - came up with two interceptions on the night, while Rohe and Gabriel added one apiece.
“Adam showed some promise in practice and we decided to give him the start,” Gunter said. “To come up with two interceptions, we were impressed. He’s a kid that’s got a real good nose for the football and we were glad to have him out there.”
With Gehlen’s defense holding, Smith and the offense managed to tack on a pair of fourth-quarter scores to sew up the win. Smith connected with Rohe on a 62-yard touchdown pass at the 6:48 mark and found Gabriel for a 17-yard score with 4:21 to play.
Smith had not thrown a touchdown pass in three games, but delivered three Friday and avoided the interceptions that have plagued the offense as of late.
“He got off to a pretty rough start with the blitzing and several incompletions. Then he rally came along,” Gunter said. “It was my intention to get him into some situations to get some touchdown passes. He managed not to throw interceptions and I give him credit for hanging in there all night.”
Rohe was the leading receiver with 5 catches for 117 yards and two scores, while Gabriel caught 4 passes for 30 and a touchdown. Austin Langel also had 1 catch for 15 and Nemmers 1 for 20.
Rohe added 50 yards on 6 carries to lead the ground game.
Taylor Wurth also saw time at quarterback late, completing his only pass attempt for 15 yards. Wurth spent time spelling Smith at strong safety as well, coming up with one tackle on the defensive side.
Kellen led the defense with 7 tackles, Rohe had 6, Heissel 5 1/2 and Campbell 5. Smith added 4 1/2 tackles and a sack and Austin Langel recorded a sack as well.
“Our defense was the mainstay of the whole game,” Gunter said. “I don’t know what would have happened if Marcus could have put some points on the board, because we were pretty frustrated on the offensive side.”
Gehlen still out-gained the Eagles 231-207 and won the turnovers battle 5-1. Rohe added a fumble recovery to the Jays’ four interceptions - his second straight game with both a fumble recovery and an interception.
“It was pretty impressive for us. A couple times Marcus had a short field and we were able to keep them out of the end zone,” Gunter said of the Jays’ first defensive shutout of the season. “We were playing with a lot of energy.”
Gehlen will now face Westwood (1-7) to wrap the regular season Friday at Jim Lorenzen Field.
“They’re almost similar to Marcus. They mirror each other,” Gunter said. “They both have a couple nice athletes and I don’t really know what they’re lacking. It’s just a matter of us going out and executing, worrying about what we need to do.”