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Tigers gut through humbling opener

Chris Easterling
Independent sports editor

MENTOR Mentor’s running game against Massillon’s passing attack. Just like everyone would’ve thought it would have been entering Friday night’s opener.

That Cardinal running game – as well as too big a hole to crawl out of – proved to be too much for the Tigers to overcome in a 57-31 loss to Mentor at Jerome T. Osborne Sr. Stadium.

“We got started too late,” said Massillon coach Nate Moore, whose team trailed 36-7 with 9:28 left in the third quarter before cutting the deficit to as close as 12 in the fourth quarter. “That’s a really good football team. … We just took too long to get things going.”

Much of the attention around Mentor’s high-powered offense had centered around its passing game. Quarterback Tadas Tatarunas was coming off a sophomores season where threw for over 2,900 yards.

Gone from that offense was a 1,900-yard rusher in Alex Matthews. Apparently, no one told the Cardinals that was supposed to mean they couldn’t run the football.
Mentor jumped out to a 13-7 lead just 2:05 into the season in large part because Matthews’ replacement, Isaiah Gullick, rushed for 113 yards on his first four carries. That included a 2-yard scoring run on the fourth play of the first drive of the season, and a 78-yard touchdown scamper on the second play of the second drive.

Gullick would finish with 238 yards on 21 carries. He added a pair of fourth quarter touchdown runs and a touchdown on a screen pass.

“I told you he was pretty good,” Mentor coach Steve Trivisonno said of Gullick. “… You’ve got to bide your time. He didn’t complain (waiting to play) and he worked hard.”

In between Mentor’s first two scores of the night was Massillon’s biggest first-half offensive highlight: a 73-yard touchdown pass from Seth Blankenship to Austin Jasinski on the Tigers’ first play. That, following Nate Gregg’s point-after kick, gave Massillon a 7-6 lead just 1:28 into the season.

That was the teaser to a spectacular night for Jasinski, who finished with 222 receiving yards and three scores on 15 catches. He also helped key Massillon’s rally from 36-7 down to within 36-21 with just under four minutes remaining in the third with two interceptions.

“If there’s a silver lining, Austin played an unbelievable game,” Moore said.

Just as big was the fact the Tiger offense gift-wrapped a pair of first-half Mentor scores. The first came directly when Will Laganke picked up a Massillon fumble and raced 65 yards for a touchdown and a 20-7 Cardinal lead with 4:18 remaining in the first quarter.

The second was more indirectly: Laganke’s interception on the second play of the second quarter brought the ball back to the Massillon 5. The Tiger defense was able to bow its back, but Mentor still ended up kicking a 22-yard field goal for a 23-7 lead with 9:50 left in the half.

“The turnovers hurt us,” Moore said.

That defensive effort was indicative of the way the Tigers were able to settle in after the initial two drives for much of a stretch between Mentor’s initial two drives and the fourth quarter.

Massillon, after giving up 140 yards on the first six Cardinal plays, limited them to just 66 on the next 17.

Tatarunas, the highly-touted junior, was held to just 2-of-10 passing for 16 yards in the first half. However, there is a caveat to all of that.

On its final first-half play, Mentor picked up 90 yards on a Logan Shea-to-Ryan Hagan scoring pass. Shea took a reverse handoff and hit the wide-open Hagan for a touchdown – on 3rd-and-15 – for a 29-7 lead with 1:14 remaining in the half.

Shea would then make it 36-7 with a 47-yard catch and run after Massillon missed a tackle. That helped Tatarunas finish with 137 yards on 5-of-16 passing.