COLERAIN — Hamilton head coach Nate Mahon knew he had nothing to lose. The playoff matchups are already set in stone for next week. That’s why going for two when down by one with just over two minutes left in the game seemed easy.
Unfortunately for Mahon, that easy decision didn’t go his way, as Colerain stuffed a wildcat draw that tied a ribbon around a 14-13 win for the Cardinals on Friday night.
Hamilton wide receiver Malik Verdon took the majority of the snaps at quarterback. The senior scrambled his way to a 32-yard touchdown on third-and-18 to bring Hamilton within one with two minutes remaining. Verdon finished the game with 134 rushing yards on 21 carries.
Hamilton went to its bell cow, running back Keyshawn Stevens, on the two-point play, but Colerain knew what was coming and snuffed it out.
“I figured they were going to run their guy,” Colerain head coach Shawn Cutright said. “They have No. 8 (Keyshawn Stevens) and No. 3 (Malik Verdon), and those are two dudes. We knew one of them was going to get it, and they are elusive and hard to bring down in the open field, but we were lucky enough to bring them down.”
The Cardinals did a good job bottling up Stevens, who was the GMC’s leading rusher coming into the game. Stevens had 11 carries for 42 yards.
The Big Blue defense also did a solid job of holding the Colerain offense in check, allowing just 221 total yards.
The difference in the game proved to be turnovers. Hamilton made three costly mistakes, all of which were fumbles.
The first occurred when Hamilton running back Kaleb Johnson lost the ball deep in his own territory. Sophomore linebacker Terrell Banks recovered for the Cardinals at the Hamilton 9-yard line. This helped set up a 4-yard touchdown run from fullback MJ Flowers to put Colerain up 7-0 early in the second quarter.
“Those are big momentum changers,” Cutright said. “With the weirdness of not having many fans in the stands, any turnover gives you energy and juice on both sides of the ball.”
Another Hamilton turnover proved to be costly after a wild snap went over Verdon’s head and rolled into the end zone. Colerain’s Ronald Williams Jr. fell on the football to give the Cardinals a 14-0 lead with just over one minute left into the half.
Hamilton didn’t go quietly into the half. A 48-yard run from Verdon helped jumpstart a late 1st half drive that ended with an 8-yard touchdown on third-and-goal from Stevens out of the wildcat formation to cut Colerain’s lead to seven.
Both defenses remained stingy in the second half, but more mistakes were made. This time, the Cardinals coughed up the football. Colerain’s Amere Shannon put the ball on the ground, and Hamilton’s Kaden Bennett recovered with just over eight minutes left in the third quarter.
Just when Hamilton caught a break, Verdon fumbled and gave it right back to the Cardinals for the third Big Blue turnover of the game.
Hamilton’s offense just couldn’t cash in when it had the chances. After a solid drive into Colerain territory, Banks was a hero yet again when he made a huge tackle for loss on third down, which forced a punt.
Hamilton was given a last chance after Flowers fumbled with just over four minutes left in the game.
It looked like it would be a four-and-out for the Hamilton offense on its last drive, but a circus catch on the sideline from wide receiver Kerry Ware on fourth-and-8 kept the drive alive and led to the 32-yard scamper from Verdon. Ultimately while the Cardinals’ defense bent on that drive, it didn’t break when it mattered on the two-point try.
“They have a heck of a team, and we knew it was going to be a battle,” Cutright said. “We’re very happy to be a one-point winner.”
Cutright admitted that his team had some work to do before the first round of the playoffs.
“We’ve got to clean it up. We can’t jump offsides, and we can’t give those pre-snap penalties, so we’ve got to practice that this week,” he said. “In tight games, that can beat you sometimes, so we’ve got to make sure that we clean that up in practice.”
Colerain committed seven penalties for 50 yards.
Friday marked the 20th straight win for Colerain (4-2) over Hamilton (3-3), dating back to 1997.
Next week, it’s the first round of the Ohio High School Athletic Association playoffs. Colerain will match up with the Milford Eagles at Cardinal Stadium. Hamilton will host the Moeller Crusaders. Both games will kick off at 7 p.m.