CANTON — The Whitmer Panthers reached the brink of their dream of a Division I state football championship Saturday night, but Toledo’s hope of claiming two Ohio titles over the weekend ended a win short.
Unranked Cincinnati Moeller (12-3) scored touchdowns off of two first-half Panther turnovers to grab a 17-6 halftime lead, then held on after the break for a 20-12 victory before a crowd of 8,834 at Canton’s Fawcett Stadium.
“This journey we were on this year was remarkable,” Whitmer coach Jerry Bell said. “This senior class has fulfilled their legacy as the best senior class ever to come out of Whitmer High School.
“We’re extremely disappointed that we fell short of our goal, with how hard these guys worked. But these guys have put us on the map, right where we want to be as a program. It’s just so hard right now.”
The loss came a night after Central Catholic (14-1), another Three Rivers Athletic Conference member, became the fourth state champion in Toledo history with a 16-12 win over Trotwood-Madison at Massillon.
Central’s lone loss came against the Panthers, 42-0, in the final game of the regular season.
Third-ranked Whitmer (14-1) shored up its defense in the second half, and got within 17-12 on a 20-yard touchdown pass from Nick Holley to twin brother Nate Holley with 1:51 left in the third quarter.
But the Panthers’ next two possessions stalled, and a final desperation drive died on their 19-yard line with 55 seconds remaining. Moeller then closed out its eighth state championship, and first since 1985.
“It’s tough coming all this way and not ending up with the finish we wanted,” said All-Ohio Whitmer senior linebacker Jack Linch, who had 8.5 tackles. “But I’m proud of our team and our coaches.
“I think we left it all on the field. We played our hearts out. Give credit to Moeller. They’re a heck of a football team.”
The Crusaders, Ohio’s dominant team from the mid 1970s through the mid 1980s, were playing in their first title game since 1997. For Whitmer, this was its first trip to a final after five previous semifinal losses.
Moeller edged the Panthers 315-304 in total offense, and closed the game’s scoring on a 22-yard field goal from Matt Reiniger with 1:48 to go.
At that point, Whitmer need to go 80 yards for a TD and two-point conversion to force overtime, and the Crusaders defense denied that comeback bid.
Whitmer’s lowest previous point total this season was 19.
Nick Holley ran 23 times for 92 yards, and was 12-of-20 passing for 196 yards.
“This is what we worked for the whole season, and me for my whole life,” said Holley, also a first-team All-Ohioan. “This was my dream, and it’s shattered. We were the underdogs and we proved them wrong every game, except for this one.
“We just didn’t play our game. The whole team was off. I don’t know why. It was a good ride, but not good enough.”
The Panthers jumped out on top on the opening possession, moving 80 yards on seven plays, with all of the yardage coming through the air.
Holley was 5-of-5 passing for 81 yards on the drive, which close on his 37-yard TD strike to wide-open tight end Michael Dzikowski 3:08 into the game.
A low snap on the point-after kick try led Holley to attempt a conversion pass that was incomplete.
“It was like we expected,” Moeller coach John Rodenberg said. “We knew we had to stop the run tonight, so we packed the box. We forced them to throw.
“The first 14 plays they threw seven. They hit that bubble screen and really hurt us. We had to extend it a little bit and get tougher.”
Moeller answered with its own 67-yard march, but settled for a 20-yard field goal by Reiniger with 3:44 left in the first quarter.
The Crusaders owned the second quarter, adding two touchdowns for a 17-6 halftime lead.
On the first TD, quarterback Spencer Iacovone (15-of-19, 161 yards) hit running back Keith Watkins (eight carries, 76 yards) on a six-yard swing pass for the score on the first play of the second quarter.
En route to the end zone, Watkins appeared to step out of bounds around the 2 yard line on the third-and-goal play before lunging into the end zone.
That drive began after a Whitmer turnover — Holley’s fumble at his 19 — and so did Moeller’s next scoring march.
Crusaders cornerback Logan Kelleher intercepted a pass intended for Chris Boykin, and Moeller took over at its 29.
Twelve plays later, Iacovone squeezed in on a one-yard sneak on third-and-goal, and Reiniger’s PAT kick gave the Crusaders an 11-point edge 4:55 before halftime.
“I’m extremely disappointed,” Nate Holley said. “Our goal coming into the season was to be state champions and make the cheer, ‘On three, 1-2-3, state champs!’
“They don’t make a chant for state runner-ups. I’m disappointed knowing we made too many mistakes, and shot ourselves in the foot. I believe we’re the better team.”
Moeller dominated time of possession (16:23 to 7:37) before the break, when they held a 199-155 edge in total yardage. Holley was 8-of-10 passing for 139 of Whitmer’s yards, but the Panthers’ vaunted 276-yards-per-game rushing attack netted just 16 yards on 10 attempts before halftime.
“They put us on our heels in the first half,” Bell said. “They balanced it out. They were able to throw the ball a little bit, and still establish the run game, and they took away our run game.
“They did to us what we try to do to other opponents. They made us one-dimensional. Hat’s off to Moeller. That’s a very well-rounded football team, and they controlled the line of scrimmage. I knew that was going to be the key to the game.”
Contact Steve Junga at: email@example.com, or 419-724-6461 or on Twitter@JungaBlade.