MASSILLON While his teammates whooped it up Saturday at Paul Brown Tiger Stadium, Massillon senior Jamir Thomas shed tears as he hugged his family.
Why this emotion in a time of celebration?
“Because this is the last Massillon-McKinley game I ever get to be a part of,” Thomas said.
He made the most of it.
Thomas ran for a career-high 269 yards to key Massillon’s 24-17 win against McKinley in the 129th meeting between the rivals.
A near-capacity crowd watched the Tigers hammer the ball on the ground on a rainy, cold afternoon. Fifty-three times Massillon ran it, with Thomas carrying it 35 times and scoring twice.
After Thomas did most of the heavy lifting to get Massillon down the field, it was junior Zion Phifer punching the ball into the end zone on a 1-yard run with 5:55 left to break a 17-17 tie.
McKinley went three-and-out on its ensuing possession, which turned out to be its final possession. Massillon ran the ball 11 straight times to eat up the final 4:52 of clock and complete the program’s first 10-0 regular season since 1999.
“It’s just playing like Tigers, which means playing hard, playing with discipline, playing with great effort, and doing that for eight months,” Massillon head coach Nate Moore said.
Phifer added 67 yards on 15 carries as the Tigers attempted only eight passes all afternoon. Massillon has won three straight and seven out of the last eight in the series against McKinley.
“We came out here expecting to pound the ball,” Thomas said. “I mean, they knew our plays. They were calling out our plays from their sideline. So we really just had to execute. That’s what we did.”
OHSAA playoff pairings will be announced Sunday, but it appears Massillon will host Columbus Walnut Ridge next week in Division II, Region 7, while McKinley will go to Solon in Division I, Region 1.
Down 17-10 at halftime, McKinley’s Kris Hunter recovered a pooch kick that Jayden Ballard couldn’t collect. Nine plays later, quarterback Alijah Curtis fought off at least three tackles before just breaking the plane of the goal line on a 4-yard TD run before the ball popped loose.
The game was tied and the Bulldogs had life. Soon Massillon was sucking it away.
McKinley ran seven offensive plays over the final 19:54 of game clock thanks to Massillon’s punishing run game.
“It was a quick second half,” McKinley head coach Dan Reardon said. “We’ve got to do a better job of getting them stopped. We had a couple of opportunities.”
Entering Saturday, only one of Massillon’s nine wins had come by less than 28. If the Tigers needed a test, they got it from McKinley.
Lameir Garrett ran for 104 yards on 19 carries to lead the Bulldogs. He added a 15-yard touchdown on a throwback screen in the first quarter that had McKinley up 7-3.
Curtis completed 7 of 13 passes for 90 yards and one interception as the Bulldogs dropped their second straight game after beginning the season 8-0.
“I thought our kids did a lot of good things,” Reardon said. “Rivalry games, big games, this game, everything is magnified. A missed tackle is magnified. A misalignment is magnified. A misread. Ultimately, they made more plays than we did.
“… I’m very proud of our kids. Our kids this year have done a tremendous job of getting so much better over the course of the year. The team we are today is a thousand times better than 10 or 12 weeks ago.”
Facing a fourth-and-6 at their own 37 on the first play of the fourth quarter, McKinley ran a fake punt. The play’s timing seemed to be disrupted and Matthew Reardon’s pass was picked off by Max Turner.
A Massillon unsportsmanlike penalty pushed the ball back to the Tigers’ 36, where it embarked on the game-winning drive. It included QB Aidan Longwell plowing forward to get a first down on fourth-and-1 from the 20.
“This game, it’s a slugfest,” Moore said. “It always is. Our kids stood tall.”
Tyree Broyles got an interception off a Kyshad Mack deflection in the second quarter to thwart any McKinley momentum after the Bulldogs got a turnover on downs. The Bulldogs finished with only 224 yards of offense.
Massillon junior nose tackle Emanuel McElroy was a force in the trenches. His stop of Garrett on third-and-goal from the 1 in the first quarter forced McKinley to settle for a 20-yard Ronald Pino field goal.
McElroy, a transfer from Tuslaw, is the son of former McKinley star Jamar Martin, creating an interesting dynamic for his family.
“It was nerve-wracking at first,” McElroy said. “I didn’t know what to expect, but I knew what I was going to do. Whether they came for McKinley or Massillon is whatever they feel. I’m going to keep doing what I do for my team and help us go 15-for-15.”
With a weapon such as Thomas, anything is possible for Massillon. The Canton native, a mix of power and speed, highlighted his final McKinley-Massillon game with 78- and 16-yard touchdown runs.
“It’s just unbelievable,” Thomas said. “I just love my team, man.”
On Twitter: @jweirREP