Scuffling on offense all night, the Pickerington High School Central football team bided its time in hopes of a creating the big play it needed to shake host Hilliard Bradley.

With an inspired effort in the second half, the defending state champions finally got that play in the form of a 93-yard fumble return for a touchdown by CC Gordon and edged Bradley 14-13 in a first-round Division I, Region 3 playoff game on Nov. 2.

“Our guys have been through a few of these types of games on our playoff runs the past couple years and they know if we stay within a score, anything can happen,” Central coach Jay Sharrett said. “We re-emphasized that at halftime, and the guys came out with a fantastic effort and made a few humongous plays.”

Leading 13-7 early in the fourth quarter, Bradley drove deep into Central territory and seemed poised to put the game away.

The Jaguars picked up a first down at the Tigers 4-yard line, but an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty pushed them back to the 19. On the next play, Jack Richards rambled for 10 yards, but while churning for extra yardage, got the ball hammered out by Dom Marasco.

Gordon scooped up the loose ball and raced untouched down the sideline to the end zone, turning a potential two-score deficit into a one-point lead.

“I forced a fumble that helped us win the Hilliard Davidson game (17-14 in overtime on Sept. 21), and Coach told me all week I was going to make a big play against Bradley, too,” Gordon said. “When I picked it up, I knew nobody was going to catch me. Man, did the momentum change there.”

On the ensuing series, Bradley drove to the Central 22. But on fourth-and-1, TCU recruit Karter Johnson blasted through the line and stopped quarterback Griffin Veil for a 1-yard loss.

“We had a special play called there, and it took a great effort from everybody to open up that lane to get me through,” Johnson said. “We made some huge adjustments through the course of the game that helped us come back, but it was mostly a matter of being more focused and coming up with the big plays when we needed them.”

The third-seeded Jaguars (9-2) had yet another shot to pull out the victory. But facing third-and-6 at the Central 24, Bradley was called for a false start. Veil threw an incomplete pass, and Donavan Banda missed a 46-yard field-goal attempt with 2:39 remaining.

“The stupid penalties we made in huge situations were critical,” Bradley coach Mike LoParo said.

“We had things going our way, but Pickerington Central is the defending state champ and we knew they’d give us their best shot. They came out inspired and knocked us in the mouth on the opening drive of the second half. They took the momentum from us. Their defense adjusted and kept putting us in bad spots.”

In hindsight, another big play by sixth-seeded Central (9-2) occurred on the opening drive when Isaiah O’Connor blocked the extra point after a Bradley touchdown.

Veil had a 15-yard TD pass to Trey Warner and a 2-yard keeper for a score to give the Jaguars a 13-0 lead. By halftime, Bradley had outgained Central 227-54 in total yards and had a first down edge of 13-2.

But Central switched defensive alignments and gradually began getting pressure on Veil.

“They were forcing us out of our game and we had to do something about it,” Sharrett said.

Johnson said the Tigers switched from a four-man front to a three-man front to help keep Bradley’s run game in check.

“What a great game that was,” said Johnson, a senior transfer from Gahanna. “It had a lot of twists and turns. But we showed the heart of a champion and beat a really tough team. Hopefully, this is the start of something big again.”

sblackledge@dispatch.com

@BlackiePreps

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