After committing a pair of turnovers and falling behind by a touchdown, the Pickerington High School Central football team slowed down Mentor with two big plays of its own in the Division I state final Dec. 1 at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium in Canton.
The complexion of the Tigers' 56-28 victory over the Cardinals began to change when one of the state's most physically gifted players, Central senior Trenton Gillison, got loose.
The Michigan State commit at tight end who began seeing increased playing time on defense in recent weeks sacked Mentor quarterback Tadas Tatarunas on third-and-6 from the Cardinals' 24 with 9:19 left in the second quarter.
His hit forced a fumble that Gillison recovered at Mentor 3, and Central scored three plays later to tie the game at 14.
"It was kind of just instinct a little bit," Gillison said. "I had to get the ball back for our team. They needed me to step up and I just did what I had to do."
On the ensuing kickoff, Mentor's Luke Floriea had the ball stripped by Justin Sutherland, and Gio Thomas recovered the fumble at the Cardinals' 11.
Two plays later, Central quarterback Demeatric Crenshaw ran for a touchdown that gave Central a 21-14 lead.
"Our team is just big on special teams, and a lot of people don't know that special teams wins our games," said junior Jason Betts, a regular on special teams who also plays at defensive back.
In addition to those two game-changing plays, the Tigers had their longest play from scrimmage with 3:48 left in the third quarter when Crenshaw hit tight end Alex Morgan for a 60-yard reception down to the Mentor 1.
Crenshaw ran in for a score on the next play to give the Tigers a 35-21 lead.
"It was in a situation where we just had to get some yards and we just did the play and (Crenshaw) threw a great ball to me," Morgan said. "It helped a lot."
On the flip side, in the second half, Central limited the big-play abilities of a Mentor team that entered the game with more than 3,000 yards both rushing and passing.
Tatarunas completed 10 of 15 passes for 147 yards and a touchdown in the first half but was only 5-for-18 for 49 yards over the final two quarters.
In the second half, the Cardinals punted twice and turned the ball over on downs on two possessions.
"(Tatarunas) stands tall in the pocket, and he picks up that third-and-9 when he needs it," coach Jay Sharrett said. "After we talked about it at halftime, our defensive backs said, 'Let's make him beat us over (the) top and they did throw over (the) top three times in the second half.' Thank goodness, they were all overthrown or just off the fingertips or dropped."