IRONTON, Ohio — There’s no denying, these Blue Devils are champions.
The Gallia Academy football team emerged from Friday night’s Ohio Valley Conference game at Tanks Memorial Stadium with a 36-33 victory over host Ironton, giving the Blue Devils at least a share of their first-ever OVC championship, with a chance to make their title outright at home next week.
The Blue Devils (8-1, 6-0 OVC) — winners of six straight — began the night on the right foot, as James Armstrong took the first carry of the game 42 yards into the red zone. Four plays later, just 1:43 into play, GAHS senior Lane Pullins gave the guests a 6-0 lead with a three-yard run up the middle.
The GAHS defense forced a turnover on downs the first time it was on the field, but Ironton (6-3, 5-1) stopped the Blue Devils on fourth down at the IHS 24 on the following possession.
After a three-and-out by each side, the Fighting Tigers took the game into the second quarter with the ball three yards on the GAHS side of the 50.
IHS converted a pair of third downs and one fourth down on the drive, and eventually found the end zone of the 14th play, a three-yard run by Seth Fosson. Michael Mahlmeister made his first of three successful point-after kicks to give the hosts a 7-6 lead with 6:55 left in the half.
Following a Blue Devils three-and-out, Ironton made it a 13-6 game with a nine-play, 61-yard drive, that featured one fourth-down conversion and was capped off by another three-yard Fosson run with 2:41 until halftime.
GAHS made it to Ironton’s side of the field, before fumbling the ball back to the hosts with 1:16 left in the half. The hosts needed eight plays and 53 seconds to stretch their lead to 20-6, with Reid Carrico delivering the touchdown on a four-yard run.
The 23 seconds remaining proved to be enough for a pair of first down passes from Justin McClelland to Cory Call, setting up a 29-yard field goal by Andrew Toler that cut the margin to 11 at halftime.
However, the Fighting Tiger lead was stretched to a game-high 17 points, at 26-9, on the first possession of the second half, with Gage Salyers finding Brycen Thomas for a 56-yard scoring pass 2:37 into the third.
The Blue Devils made it into IHS territory on the next drive, but fumbled the ball away at the 25. The GAHS defense made up for the turnover on the very next play, as Call stripped the Ironton ball carrier, and Trent Meadows recovered the loose ball on the IHS 40.
On Gallia Academy’s first play from scrimmage, McClelland found Call for a 40-yard touchdown, cutting the deficit to 26-15 with 6:41 to go in the third.
The Blue Devil defense came up with a three-and-out on the ensuing Ironton drive, with Pullins and Brayden Easton each recording a sack.
GAHS received the ball on its own 33 and needed just eight plays to cover the 67 yards, converting on a pair of third downs along the way. Armstrong delivered the touchdown for the Blue and White, rushing in from 10 yards out to make it a 26-21 Blue Devil deficit with 1:55 left in the period.
The Gallia Academy defense forced another three-and-out, and the Blue Devils took the game into the fourth quarter before a loss of downs on the Ironton 37.
On the fourth play of the Fighting Tiger drive, Meadows recovered another fumble for the Blue Devils, giving the guests the ball with 42 yards to paydirt.
GAHS picked up three first downs, but faced third down for the first time in the drive from the IHS five. On that third down play — with 5:19 left in regulation — Gallia Academy regained the lead with a five-yard pass from McClelland to Cade Roberts. McClelland completed the two-point conversion pass to Call, making the Blue Devil lead 29-26.
The Fighting Tigers returned the ensuing kickoff over 50 yards to the GAHS 42, and regained the lead five plays later, as Carrico broke a 20-yard scoring run. The successful point-after kick made it a 33-29 IHS lead with 3:32 to go.
Gallia Academy began its game-winning drive from its own 35, converted a fourth down around midfield, and another once it reached the red zone. The 11th play of the possession — a first down from the IHS 15 — was a flea flicker pass from McClelland to Call, who fought off tight coverage and stayed in bounds to make the reception in the end zone. Toler made his first extra point of the game, giving GAHS a 36-33 lead with 24 seconds to play.
Ironton picked up two first downs before time ran out, and Gallia Academy was crowned champion.
Following the win, second-year GAHS head coach Alex Penrod talked about what the championship means to his team and its upper classmen, who were a part of a 1-9 campaign just two seasons ago.
“The fans, the people here at this football game, they don’t see the process of what it took for this team to get there, especially these seniors,” Penrod said. “That’s what’s special about it, they’ve been at the absolute bottom of this program, and they showed that this Blue Devil football program is now back. It started last year with that group of seniors, to the seniors leading the way this year with a special group of underclassmen. It makes this an absolute team and a family program.”
Penrod also noted that the game-winning touchdown play might have been ran earlier in the night, but his offensive staff ultimately saved the flea flicker play for the right time.
“I tried to get that called a little bit earlier,” Penrod said. “I didn’t think we were going to be able to get it called. I can only offer my input as a head coach, not as an offensive play caller, but I think it lined up perfectly. You put the ball in a kid’s hands and he throws it to a kid who you ultimately trust in a game like this.”
In total offense, GAHS outgained the Fighting Tigers by a 412-to-359 tally, including 271-to-132 in the second half. The Blue Devils claimed a 22-to-17 edge in first downs, with the teams tying in the turnover battle with two apiece.
Gallia Academy was penalized six times for 40 yards, while Ironton was sent back five times for 25.
McClelland was 18-of-28 passing for 214 yards and three touchdowns, while rushing 13 times for 52 yards. Armstrong led GAHS with 123 total yards, combining six carries and six receptions, while finding the end zone once.
Call had a game-best seven receptions for 118 yards and two touchdowns, while Jacob Campbell finished with 55 total yards on 15 carries and one catch. Roberts had 55 yards and a touchdown on three receptions, while Pullins had 29 total yards on four totes and one grab.
For Ironton, Salyers was 8-of-14 passing for 122 yards and a score, while carrying the ball 19 times for 98 yards. Carrico had 114 total yards on 28 touches, Fosson added 79 yards over six carries, while Thomas earned 71 yards over a team-best three receptions.
For the Penrod and the Blue Devils, a share of their first conference title since their 2012 Southeastern Ohio Athletic League crown isn’t enough, and Gallia Academy will look to seal the title outright when it hosts 0-9 South Point in Week 10.
“We’re going to enjoy this one tonight,” Penrod said. “But, what we’re going to get these kids to buy into is ‘we don’t want to share this thing, we want it to be our OVC championship’. Ironton showed some holes and some flaws that we still have to fix, so starting tomorrow, we’re back and preparing for Week 10.”
Unofficially, GAHS will also be home in Week 11, as the Blue Devils also clinched their first postseason-berth since 2012.
Alex Hawley can be reached at 740-446-2342, ext. 2100.