MASSILLON Massillon long ago learned to never take an Austintown Fitch team lightly. That’s especially true when the Tigers are carrying around an undefeated record.
So, as the two long-time combatants met Friday night at Paul Brown Tiger Stadium, Massillon didn’t necessarily expect to see its run of lopsided routs continue. The only thing that mattered was continuing the Tigers season-opening win streak.
The Tigers would end up keeping their winning ways going, but it wouldn’t necessarily be easy. They scored three fourth-quarter touchdowns to pull away for a 42-14 win over the Falcons.
“Our kids fought hard,” Massillon coach Nate Moore said after his team improved to 6-0, the school’s best start since 2013. “It was good to see us go the distance in a ballgame and win it in the fourth quarter.”
The Tigers, whose closest game in the fourth quarter previous to Friday was a 37-21 lead over Warren Harding in Week 3, would only lead 21-14 going into the fourth quarter. Massillon would score on three of its final four possessions, while the Falcons went three-and-out on each of their three drives in the fourth.
Massillon held a 151-5 edge in fourth-quarter yardage.
“I just told them I was proud of the way they fought,” said Fitch coach Phil Annarella, whose team is now 4-2. “We played extremely hard; we didn’t play well at times. Sometimes, a 5-(foot-)7 kid can’t cover a 6-5 kid or whatever he is.”
Much of the focus coming in was on Tiger running back Jamir Thomas’ assault on the school’s record books. Thomas came in just 190 yards behind Art Hasting’s career rushing mark, and four rushing touchdowns behind Bob Glass’ record.
For the first half, Thomas couldn’t find the room to run, with just 28 first-half yards on seven carries. That didn’t necessarily hurt Massillon in opening up a 21-7 halftime lead, thanks to big plays in the passing game.
Aidan Longwell threw three first-half touchdown passes, including two to sophomore Jayden Ballard. Tre’Von Morgan added an 18-yard scoring catch which put the Tigers ahead 7-0 on their first possession of the game.
Longwell hit Ballard, then, on a 58-yard touchdown pass on the first play of their second possession to make it 14-0 Massillon. Ballard added a 66-yard touchdown catch to make it 21-7 Tiger in the second quarter.
Longwell finished 13-of-20 for 263 yards and four touchdowns. He and Ballard would hook up for a third score with 11:17 remaining, a 13-yarder to make it 28-14.
The Tiger passing game had its share of issues in the second half, as Fitch was able to mix up its pressures up front. That’s where the Tiger running game, specifically Thomas, came to the rescue.
Thomas would help Massillon open up its first three-score edge of the night when he took off for a 32-yard touchdown run with 8:59 remaining. That put the Tigers in front 35-14.
Thomas finished with 105 yards on 18 carries.
The Tigers once again struggled with ill-timed penalties, with six flags for 56 yards. They also had a second-half interception.
“We had to overcome a fair amount of adversity tonight,” Moore said. “It was good to see our guys respond.”
However, Fitch also has its own hand in making things interesting. That’s especially true when quarterback Dom Montalbano’s second short scoring run, a 1-yarder, pulled the Falcons within 21-14 with 5:48 remaining in the third quarter.
Fitch made its presence known on the very first play from scrimmage, as Roddell Bebbs raced 21 yards into Massillon territory to the Tiger 44. The Falcons would eventually move as far as the 33, only to be turned away on a fourth-and-11 stop by Massillon.
That would be one of three first-half possessions by Fitch to reach Tiger territory. However, only one would actually do scoreboard damage, as Montalbano’s 3-yard touchdown run with 6:56 remaining in the first half pulled the Falcons to within 14-7.
Fitch had 165 total yards at halftime, 58 on a Bobby Cavalier-to-Reuben Talley pass which set up Montalbano’s scoring run. That total was more than the full-game outputs of three of Massillon’s first five opponents.
The Falcons finished with 215 yards.