DAYTON -- With hopes of advancing to its first Division I state championship on the line, the Pickerington High School North football team made sure the ball got into the hands of senior running back Godwin Igwebuike.
Facing Cincinnati Moeller on Nov. 24 in a state semifinal in Dayton Welcome Stadium, the trust the Panthers had in Igwebuike — the Central District Offensive Player of the Year — seemed on the verge of paying off.
Igwebuike took a direct snap and ran toward the end zone on fourth-and-goal from the Crusaders’ 5-yard line, but the ball got knocked from his hands as he was getting tackled just short of the goal line.
Moeller’s Ethan Frericks fell on the loose ball to preserve a 26-21 victory that ended the greatest season in the history of North’s program.
The Crusaders, who have won all 12 of the state semifinals they’ve played in, improved to 11-3 and will play Toledo Whitmer for the state championship Dec. 1 at Canton Fawcett Stadium.
North finished 12-2.
“I thought I’d crossed the (goal line),” Igwebuike said. “That was our go-to play and we gave it all we had. I don’t regret anything about it. We had a hell of a season and a hell of a game.”
The Panthers, who posted shutouts in two of the past three weeks, fell behind 3-0 on a 32-yard field goal by Matt Reiniger with 8:40 left in the opening quarter.
North answered on the ensuing drive when Mason Olszewski scored on a 1-yard run. The score was set up by a 34-yard run by Igwebuike that included a spin move just past the line of scrimmage. Igwebuike also had runs of 10 and 27 yards during the drive.
Moeller’s Joe Eramo ran in for an 11-yard score with 7:29 to go in the first half for a 10-7 lead.
The Crusaders nearly added another score on the final play of the first half, but North’s Warren Stoddard forced a fumble by Keith Watkins on third-and-goal from the Panthers 1 to keep it at 10-7.
After Reiniger made a 20-yard field goal with 8:02 left in the third quarter, Igwebuike broke free for a 76-yard run on the third play of the next possession to give North a 14-13 lead.
Eramo gave the lead back to the Crusaders on the ensuing drive with a 34-yard run, but North answered again early in the fourth quarter.
Zeph Miller passed to Justin Childers amid heavy traffic in the middle of the field and Childers ran for a 55-yard score that made it 21-20 with 11:23 to go.
Moeller scored the game-winning points with 3:50 remaining on a 7-yard run by Watkins. The Crusaders, who failed on a two-point conversion pass, had the drive set up by an interception by Logan Kelleher at the North 44.
The Crusaders began three of their five scoring drives inside Panthers territory.
Igwebuike finished with 194 yards and one touchdown on 16 carries. Olszewski was 9-for-18 passing for 99 yards and North finished with 388 yards of offense.
Although Watkins had 33 rushes for 117 yards, Eramo burned the Panthers for 153 yards and two scores on 16 carries for a 9.5 average.
“What I liked about it was that we had the lead, we lost the lead but then we got the lead back,” coach Tom Phillips said. “We had a chance to go to Canton.
“They won the field position battle and had control offensively. They beat us on the running game. We had the big plays but our defense was challenged with multiple formations. I thought they were a very solid football team.”
CM--Reiniger 32 FG
PN--Olszewski 1 run (Holland kick)
CM--Eramo 11 run (Reiniger kick)
CM--Reiniger 20 FG
PN--Igwebuike 76 run (Holland kick)
CM--Eramo 34 run (Reiniger kick)
PN--Childers 55 pass from Miller (Holland kick)
CM--Watkins 7 run (pass failed)