WESTFIELD TWP. — It was a role reversal that tasted oh, so sweet for Cloverleaf’s football team.
For the first time in more than a year, the Colts defense led the charge and Buckeye felt the full wrath Friday in a 22-6 non-league decision at Gene Clark Stadium.
Cloverleaf (2-1) had a 200-yard rusher (Devin Cunningham), 200-yard passer (Garrison Flora) and 100-yard receiver (Matt Vespucci), but still needed second-half turnovers from Tyler Hissom and Jared Talmon to hold off the offensively challenged but very pesky Bucks (0-3).
“It feels really good winning two in a row coming from eight straight losses,” Cunningham said. “We’re coming into Nordonia (next week) — they’re a tough team — and we’re going to have to practice extra hard and motivate ourselves to come out and play the football we’ve been playing.”
The Colts held the Bucks to 19 yards in the first half and 144 overall. Buckeye didn’t have a first down until Christian Petek hit Austin Wredberg on a curl route with 6:04 left in the third quarter.
Clinging to a 16-point lead following a 1-yard touchdown run by the Bucks’ Cody Fortney (11 carries, 65 yards) with 14:53 remaining in the game, Cloverleaf didn’t allow Buckeye to penetrate the Colts 40-yard line the rest of the way.
Talmon stopped a drive cold with a sack/fumble recovery combination in the third quarter, and Hissom delivered the dagger by intercepting Petek on the Cloverleaf 42 with 5:21 left.
The performance was just what the doctor ordered for a unit that allowed an average of 39.7 points and 423.4 yards over its previous nine games.
“It feels great. The defense really stepped it up,” Hissom said. “It really helps us go into the start of the Suburban League (schedule).
“We pick everybody up. When one side of the ball goes down, the other side picks it up. It was a good team effort.”
Though the Colts shot themselves in the foot with three second-half holding penalties and couldn’t get much going up the middle against Buckeye tackles Jon Maslanka and Matt Stricklett and linebackers Fortney (4 tackles for loss) and Zak Diaz (2 sacks), their performance in the first 24 minutes was nearly perfect.
With the Bucks clearly intent on shutting down Cunningham (41 carries, 256 yards, 2 TDs) up the gut, Cloverleaf countered by attacking the perimeter. The results were 341 yards total offense (147 rushing, 194 passing) in the first half and a 22-0 lead, with the only mistake coming on a failed fourth-and 1 from the Buckeye 10.
The combination of Flora (18-for-24, 243 yards) and Vespucci (6 receptions, 141 yards) stole the spotlight from Cunningham, who had 23 totes for 145 yards in the opening two quarters.
Vespucci in particular came through seemingly whenever the Colts needed a big play. He caught passes for first downs on first-and-27 and fourth-and-5, a touchdown on third-and-14 and his 50-yard reception on third-and-7 less than a minute before halftime set up Cunningham’s second TD run.
Making the performance even more impressive, all five of Vespucci’s first-half receptions were against good coverage, as Flora used impressive touch to fit the pigskin into tight windows.
“Garrison threw a lot of good balls and made good reads,” Vespucci said. “He was perfect.
“It feels good catching the ball and getting the yards. It’s always a good feeling.”
The Colts lost traction in the second half, but Cunningham’s grind-it-out style wore down the clock with the outcome in doubt. He compiled the fourth-most rushing yards in school history, surpassed the 200-career-point barrier and had 14 total first downs behind the line of Myan Newman, Jon Keene, Kevin Chester, Tim Haumesser and Wangler.
“We probably condition better than any other Suburban League team,” Cunningham said. “With Coach (Bob) Lake going to this spread offense — running the ball, passing the ball, running the ball — it’s what we’re trained for, to keep going.
“In the second half, we were really shooting ourselves in the foot, but luckily we got the ball and held onto it, stepped up on defense, buckled down and played the rest of the game out.”
Buckeye lost its 14th straight against Cloverleaf, but heads into next week’s Patriot Athletic Conference opener with Oberlin with confidence after winning the second half.
Along with more-than-respectable interior defense, the offense showed life on its lone scoring drive, as Petek was 5-for-6 passing for 53 yards and converted a fourth down with a strike to Jeff Susalla.
The Bucks still have yet to get their jet sweep or quarterback counter going, but Fortney believes they’re heading in the right direction.
“We showed that we have fight,” he said. “We don’t want to give up at all. We had some positives in the second half. (We need to) carry it on week to week and improve every day. We always work hard.”
Contact Albert Grindle at (330) 721-4043 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Cloverleaf 22, Buckeye 6
BUCKEYE 0 0 6 0 — 6
CLOVERLEAF 9 13 0 0 — 22
C — Devin Cunningham 6 run (kick failed), 8:53.
C — Kyle Sasinka 36 field goal, 1:22.
C — Matt Vespucci 17 pass from Garrison Flora (Sasinka kick), 7:40.
C — Cunningham 2 run (pass failed), 0:37.
B — Cody Fortney 1 run (pass failed), 2:53.