WARSAW – A loss in the conference opener was staring the Warsaw football team right between the eyes early in the fourth quarter Friday night.
The Tigers never blinked.
A resilient Warsaw squad staged a remarkable rally to stun Plymouth 20-19 at a frenzied Fisher Field in a thrilling Northern Lakes Conference lidlifter.
The host Tigers made every big play on both sides of the ball in the final 11 minutes to wipe out a 19-7 Rockies lead.
Warsaw improves to 2-1 overall and goes to more importantly 1-0 in the NLC standings. Plymouth drops to 2-1 and 0-1.
It was the senior trio of Austin Head, Tanner Balazs and Conner McCammack on a Tiger team filled with seniors that made the difference at the end.
Quarterback Head hit Balazs with a quick out route that the speedy wideout turned into a 64-yard touchdown sprint with 10 minutes to play to make it 19-14.
The game winner came as Head lofted a beautiful throw on a corner route to McCammack. The play, a 10-yard touchdown toss, came on fourth and eight with 3:27 to play.
The fired up Warsaw defense, which kept the hosts in the game, then sealed the deal by stopping Plymouth possessions twice in the final three minutes. The Tigers got huge hits in the final minutes from Seth Fouts, Kyle Heckaman, Darren Schaefer and Gabe Furnivall.
“I’m just so proud of all of them,” said Warsaw coach Phil Jensen. “You like to think that your team will make the biggest improvement from week one to week two. But by golly, did we make a big jump from week two (a 49-14 loss at East Noble) to week three.
“Our kids just stepped up and made big plays when they had to. Our receivers stepped up big. Tanner has ability in the open field. He and Conner have taken to their roles.”
“We knew Plymouth was going to challenge us upfront and we had to get the ball on the perimeter with our quick passing game tonight. Fortunately, it worked out well and it paid off tonight.”
The Rockies were determined to stop Warsaw star Tristan McClone. The tailback, who entered the game with 60 carries for 320 yards in the first two contests, was held to 72 yards on 32 carries. McClone, who set the single-season rushing record last year, did have a four-yard touchdown run.
That opened things up for the short passing game and Head took advantage. The senior, who was 8-22 for 116 yards in the first two games, had a brilliant night by going 13-18 for 208 yards and two touchdowns.
“We knew we had to put points on the board and put the ball in the air,” said Head about the fourth quarter rally. “On the last touchdown, I just hoped that Conner would make a play and he did.
“I just let our athletes make plays and they did all night. They (Tanner and Conner) are two of the best athletes on the team. It’s huge to come out with a win tonight and start NLC play on the right foot.”
Plymouth, which had beaten Warsaw in eight of the last 10 meetings, took a 13-0 lead early in the second quarter. Sophomore quarterback Jack Barron scored on a five-yard keeper and a one-yard plunge. Barron, the son of Plymouth coach John Barron, was 11-19 passing for 172 yards and also led the Rockies ground game with 47 yards on 10 carries.
The Tigers, who beat a short-handed Plymouth team 26-7 last year, got back in the game just before halftime. McClone went in from four yards out with 35.3 seconds to play to make it 13-7.
Plymouth made it 19-7 when Michael Hartman scored from a yard out with 11:10 to play in the game. The Rockies, who had a PAT blocked on their second touchdown, did not convert on a running play in a try for a two-point conversion.
“Our defense made big stands tonight to keep us in the game,” said Jensen. “It was more about calming them down in the second half and getting back to basics.
“We’re not there yet and we have work to do. But, we had moments tonight and we didn’t quit.”
Balazs had a huge night in open space for the Tigers. The shifty receiver had six catches for an eye-popping 157 yards. McCammack had five receptions for 35 yards.
The Tiger defense played with passion the final half. Top tacklers for the inspired group included Furnivall, Fouts, Heckaman, Schaefer, Ethyn Bradley, Caleb Wooldridge and Marcos Rodriguez.
Neither team had a turnover in the game.
Plymouth hosts undefeated Northridge (3-0) and Warsaw visits Elkhart Memorial (1-2) in NLC games next Friday night. The Raiders beat Wawasee 31-14 and Memorial edged Goshen 13-10 in league play tonight.