Tigers are flagged In playoff opener
Marion Harding garners 17‑13 win; Refs hit Massillon with 15 penalties

Independent Sports Editor

They say you can call holding on virtually every play in a football game and it seemed the officials in Saturday’s Massillon‑Marion Harding regional quarterfinal playoff game were intent on doing just that.

In the end, the eighth offensive holding penalty of the game against the Tigers nullified a 53‑yard Justin Zwick touchdown run and Marion Harding escaped Massillon with a 17‑13 victory as a stunned throng looked on at Paul Brown Tiger Stadium.

Fifteen minutes after the game ended, the east stands of the venerable stadium remained crowded as Tiger partisans seemed to be waiting to wake up from a bad dream.

“Penalties helped us a lot all night long,” conceded Marion Harding coach Tim Hinton. “I know the people in Massillon are going to talk about that part of the game for a long, long time. But I don’t control that part.”

Massillon was penalized a total of 15 times for 153 yards in the contest.

Tiger coach Rick Shepas declined comment on the officiating but tipped his hat to the Presidents, who will get a chance to avenge a regular season‑ending loss to Mansfield when they meet the Tygers in a regional semifinal game next Saturday.

“Marion Harding came in very excited for this football game and very well prepared,” Shepas said. “They are very well coached. They have some outstanding skill players. And they did an outstanding job.

“We had opportunities that we didn’t take advantage of. We played very well at times.

We hurt ourselves at times. I give my kids a lot of credit. They played with character all year long. We’ve overcome a great deal of adversity and made some great progress ourselves.”

David Abdul drilled a 48‑yard field goal to give the Tigers a 13‑10 lead in the game with 8:53 to play in the fourth quarter. It was Massillon’s only tally in the second half of the game.

Marion Harding then put together the game‑winning drive, beginning at its own 20 after Abdul’s kickoff reached the end zone.

Quarterback Kyle Adams picked up a first down at the 37 on a 14‑yard option keeper around left end. Three plays later, Rod Keller got the ball on the belly play and generated another first down at the 47.

The Presidents kept grinding it out, reaching the Massillon 35. On second down, Adams dropped back to pass and nearly had his throw picked off.

The reprieve was key as Adams, on the very next play, executed a throwback screen to Vacarro Bracy, who carried the ball down the left sideline 34 yards to the end zone for the go‑ahead score. It was only third reception all season long for the senior tailback.

“We used that play last week against Mansfield Senior and had a big score on it,” Hinton said.”They didn’t ask for the Mansfield tape. I don’t know if they scouted that game or what. So I thought maybe it was worth a shot and they wouldn’t recognize it, and they didn’t.”

Jeremy Krausz got the extra point through the uprights and ‑ with 1:35 to play following the seven‑minute, 14‑play drive ‑ it was desperation time for the Tigers.

Starting at its own 11, after yet another holding penalty on the kickoff return, Massillon made its final run. Perry James picked up 13 on a draw play. A motion penalty nullified a 20‑yard James run before Zwick hit Montale Watkins for a 20‑yard gain to the 44.

A short pass to Jesse Robinson advanced the ball to the 47, but two incompletions later it was fourth‑and‑seven for Massillon. Zwick dropped back to pass, looked to his right then began to scramble left. The field seemed to open up in front of the junior signal caller and he turned on the jets down the sideline.

As Zwick reached the 10‑yard line and it was clear he was going to score, an official trailing the play threw a penalty flag 20 yards behind the Tiger quarterback and bedlam erupted. Even the usually stoic Shepas was incensed, charging a few steps onto the field before thinking better of it.

‘The call was holding and the ball was placed at the Marion 38‑yard line with a few ticks on the clock remaining. A final‑play desperation throw toward the end zone was intercepted, ensuring the Presidents’ triumph.

“That’s a great, great football team we had to play tonight,” Hinton said. “Give Coach Shepas and that team a lot of credit. They had a lot of adversity on those penalties. They kept fighting back and fighting back. They did a heck of a job.”

The Presidents opened the game as if they were going to blow the Tigers right out of their own stadium, following a 40‑yard kickoff return by Travis Harrah that gave the visitors superb field position at their own 45‑yard line.

Adams got Harding off on the right foot with a 21‑yard completion to Derick Ross to the Massillon 35. Rod Keller’s five‑yard run picked up another first down at the Tiger 23, and one play later Adams dropped a perfectly thrown pass into the arms of Rick Beechum in the end zone for six.

Krausz added the point‑after‑touchdown and Marion Harding was celebrating a 7‑0 lead at 9:00 of the first quarter.

Massillon went three‑and‑out on its initial possession of the evening and a 22‑yard punt return by Ross gave the Presidents good field position once again at midfield.

The Tigers got the ball back when Jared Frank recovered Ross’s fumble after Adams completed a screen pass to the elusive wideout.

Massillon embarked on a 13‑play drive ‑ featuring eight carries by senior running back Perry James ‑ but the Tigers had to settle for a 51‑yard Abdul field goal at 10:05 of the second quarter to make it a 7‑3 Marion Harding advantage.

Harding moved from its 20 to the Massillon 40 on its ensuing possession. The drive stalled when Tiger cornerback Matt Shem made a great recovery to bat away a sure touchdown pass to Ross and the Presidents were forced to punt.

Massillon, taking over at its 10‑yard line, began to click. Zwick hit Robinson along the right sideline for 13 yards.

James swept around left end for 12 yards. Zwick meshed with Devon Jordan along the left sideline for 11 yards.

And James went up the middle for 10 more yards. On four consecutive plays, the Tigers picked up four first downs, moving to the Harding 41.

Two more James runs netted 11 yards and another first down but a holding call against the Tigers set up second‑and‑14.

Zwick dropped back and found Jeremiah Drobney all alone in the middle of the Harding secondary for a 30‑yard pickup to the 3.

Another holding call moved the ball back to the 11 but Zwick got it back and more, scrambling around his right side behind a fine block by James for the touchdown.

Abdul’s kick made it 10‑7 at 2:17 of the first half and that score held at intermission.

First downs rushing 8 9
First downs passing 6 6
First downs by penalty 1 1
TOTAL first downs 15 16
Net yards rushing 189 170
Net yards passing 114 133
TOTAL yards 303 303
Passes attempted 18 18
Passes completed 8 11
Passes intercepted 1 0
Punts 3 2
Punting average 54 30
Fumbles/Lost 1/0 2/2
Penalties 15 7
Yards penalized 153 51

MASSILLON 0 10 0 3 13
MARION 7 0 3 7 17

MH ‑ Beechum 23‑yard pass from Adams (Krausz kick)
M ‑ FG Abdul 50
M ‑ Zwick 11‑yard run (Abdul kick)
MH ‑ FG Krausz 31
M ‑ FG Abdul 48
MH ‑ Bracy 34‑yard pass from Adams (Krausz kick)

Massillon rushing: James 21‑123, Zwick 3‑56, King 2‑5, Oliver 1‑5.
Marion rushing: Bracy 13‑76, Adams 7‑41, Keller 6‑21, Troutman 5‑15, Barron 2‑7.

Massillon passing: Zwick 8‑17‑114 INT, Williams 0‑1‑0.
Marion passing: Adams 11‑17‑133 2 TDs, Ross 0‑1‑0.

Massillon receiving: Drobney 3‑65, Watkins 1‑20, Robinson 2‑16, Jordan 1‑11, Williams 1‑2.
Marion receiving: Ross 4‑41, Bracy 1‑34, Beechum 1‑23, Pezley 2‑20, Braddy 2‑6, Woods 1‑9.

Statistics courtesy of Richard Cunningham

Is there a target on the Tigers?

The real victims in last Saturdays controversial Massillon‑Marion Harding playoff game are the players … and maybe not just the ones wearing the orange‑and‑black.

Certainly when considering the consequences of the ‘Flagfest at PB.’, the Tigers got the worst of it. The sequence of events that led up to the final 17‑14 defeat and elimination from the playoffs was shattering to the fans, let alone the players themselves.

For the 70 or so young men that comprise the Massillon football roster, it was a gut‑wrenching way to wrap up 11 months of preparations, beginning last December when the off‑season weight‑training program commenced.

Those boys had to feel as if the outcome of the game, and thus their season, was determined not by themselves or even the guys on the other sideline. They all must believe in their hearts their fate was sealed by the game officials.

Ironically, the Presidents of Marion Harding could feel victimized as well. Their hard‑fought victory over Massillon, a win which gives instant credibility to any football program, is now tainted somewhat by the questions surrounding the flood of penalty flags against the Tigers.

And a flood it was. Of Biblical proportions.

Official statistics had the number of penalties against Massillon at 15 for 153 yards, compared to seven for 51 yards against Marion Harding.

But the back‑breaker was nine holding penalties against the Tiger offense or kick return team, especially the one that brought back what would have been a game­ winning 53‑yard touchdown run by Justin Zwick in the final half­ minute of play.

Now, there’s been talk from both camps that the Tiger offensive linemen, “hold on every play.”

If that is indeed the case, why wasn’t it called more often during the Tigers’ 10‑game regular season? When a team passes the football as often as this one does, the zebras certainly had ample opportunity to whistle offensive holding infractions.

My own highly‑unofficial statistics for eight Massillon games this season had the Tigers committing 13 holding penalties in those contests. The most in one game was three against Akron Garfield, and there were no holding flags at all in the St. Ignatius game, which just happens to feature Ohio’s best tandem of defensive ends, including University of Michigan‑bound Pat Massey.

So how in the world does a team averaging two holding penalties per game suddenly and without warning ‑ the Tigers had only one holding penalty the week before against McKinley ‑ begin grabbing and clutching the opponent enough to draw NINE holding penalties?

When something like this happens, you have to consider cause and effect. Has Massillon’s reputation been sullied so much by the Jesse Scott recruiting allegations and subsequent court cases that the Tigers can’t get a fair shake on the gridiron?

Or was this simply a case of a referee calling what he truly believed to be holding penalties against the Massillon offensive line?

And one more question to ponder. If this officiating crew was especially vigilant on the holding call, where was the flag on Marion Harding’s game‑winning touchdown play when a Tiger tackler was dragged down by a blocker … in the open field no less?

I don’t believe in conspiracies but I do know if an athletic program take the Miami Hurricanes football team for instance gets branded as an outlaw program, it is a target on their back and it’s hard to shake.

Let’s hope all the recruiting … uh, stuff that has been thrown against Massillon’s wall isn’t starting to stick, making the Tigers a target for every official who buys into the bad‑boy image and decides to take matters into his own hands.

Joe Shaheen is sports editor of The Independent.

Kreg Rotthoff