Football a lot of times can be a battle of attrition and that was the case for Friday night (Oct. 5).
Unfortunately for Oblong-Palestine-Hutsonville's football team, as a couple of injuries factored significantly in OPH losing the battle between the lines as well.
OPH held a lead late in the third quarter, but ultimately dropped a 24-14 decision to Villa Grove-Heritage in their Little Okaw Valley Conference Southeast Division contest, which also spoiled Homecoming at Palestine in the process.
"Personnel is a major factor in small-school high school football," OPH head coach Mark Ambrose said. "Tonight came down to a personnel thing and it was an unfortunate situation for us to be in."
Things were going OPH's way early, as Mason Dunlap recovered a fumble on the first possession of the game, but OPH gave it right back on a fumble a few plays later. However, OPH was able to cash in the next time they had the ball.
Following a defensive stop, OPH got the ball on their own 22 and went for paydirt right off the bat. The gamble worked, as Evan Newlin connected with Conner Potts for a 78-yard touchdown pass and a 7-0 lead following the extra point kick from Diego Lliteras.
The score remained that way until the 3:01 mark of the second quarter, when Villa Grove-Heritage quarterback Evan Wilson scored on a two-yard run, then completed a two-point conversion pass to Cole Thomas to give the Blue Devils an 8-7 lead at halftime.
Right before the half, Newlin was scrambling trying to keep a play alive and suffered a leg injury that caused him to miss the rest of the game. Forced to play without one of their leaders and core pieces, OPH found a way to regain the lead, as Ruger Berry blocked a punt to set OPH up at the 37-yard line. Three plays later, the backup quarterback - Lliteras - tossed a 33-yard touchdown to Potts and added the extra point for a 14-8 lead with 1:21 left in the third quarter.
"Ruger's blocked punt was an outstanding motivational play for us," Ambrose said. "I knew we were going to score on that possession after that big momentum shift."
However, Newlin's absence was felt even more on the defensive side, as Villa Grove-Heritage was able to attack the OPH defense in the area where Newlin had been playing and turned it into a pair of late scores to take the lead and secure the win.
The first score came on a Zach Champagne three-yard run and Champagne also added the two-point conversion for a 16-14 lead with 10:28 remaining in the game. OPH was unable to score on its next possession, while VGH responded with another score, this time on a six-yard run from Champagne and he also added the two-point conversion again for a 24-14 lead with 3:54 to play.
OPH was never able to muster a serious threat after that and VGH was able to hang on for the win.
"We need to have an athlete like Evan Newlin on the field for us," Ambrose said. "We depend on him a lot. He carries a lot of the load as the quarterback, but he is also an outstanding outside linebacker. They were able to get outside on us in the second half in ways that they couldn't in the first half. A lot of that was because of the personnel we had out there. You don't normally want to put freshmen out there, especially in situations like that, but tonight we had to. Those guys played their butts off and gave a valiant effort, but it just wasn't enough."
Yardage-wise, the teams were about even, with Villa Grove-Heritage outgaining OPH 272-249.
Potts led OPH with 111 yards receiving on two catches, which came on the touchdown passes from the two quarterbacks. Newlin completed four passes for 99 yards, while Lliteras completed two passes for 36 yards. Troy Metzger was the leading rusher with 43 yards, while Newlin picked up 31 on the ground.
Champagne led Villa Grove-Heritage with 74 yards and two touchdowns on the ground, while Wilson threw for 59 yards and ran for 25 more and a touchdown. Austin Grimm added 44 yards rushing and Blake Smith was the leading receiver with three catches for 41 yards.