It was the score of the Blue Devils’ Class A quarterfinal with 2:56 left in the third quarter Friday, after quarterback Tanner Richardson had just been stripped on a failed fourth down conversion attempt and his fumble scooped and taken to the end zone by Wayne’s Lowden Johnson, the Bulldogs third score of the quarter after Ringling led 14-13 at the half.
At that moment, it would have been easy for the Blue Devils to give up. It would have been only natural for head coach Tracy Gandy’s squad to yield to a Wayne team looking to repeat as Class A state champions and taking control of its home crowd as well as the game.
Instead of accepting defeat, Ringling (12-1) roared back, scoring 26 straight points to wrestle a 40-33 win and continue its dream of a state title for at least another week.
“I can’t say enough about the heart and determination our kids showed,” Gandy said. “We knew we were in for a 12 round heavyweight fight playing against this team.”
A loss by decision, however, wasn’t enough for senior Jackson Dillon, who took the Blue Devils on his back in a Herculean second half effort that included three touchdowns and 152 rushing yards before delivering the knockout blow on a 30-yard touchdown run with 1:53 left in the game.
A moral victory wouldn’t do for Richardson, who shrugged off three interceptions to make three enormous plays, two on quarterback scrambles of 60 and 65 yards, and one on a critical 34-yard fourth quarter completion to Dillon.
“No one ever lost confidence or didn’t believe we would win,” Richardson said. “Our coach made great play calls and set us up for success.”
Fittingly, it was Richardson who finally closed out any Wayne hopes, intercepting Bulldogs quarterback Sam Martin with 1:34 left in the game to allow Ringling to kneel for the win.
“I just immediately thought ‘we won’,” Richardson said. “That we had done it.”
It was a welcome measure of redemption for the Blue Devils, who took a hard loss to Wayne in last year’s regular season finale.
The game had the feel of a defensive slugfest early, as Ringling and Wayne exchanged first quarter body blows. The Bulldogs (10-2) drew first blood on a Johnson five-yard run, answered right back by Ringling, who got a 16-yard touchdown reception out of Landon Lyle to even the score at 7-7.
After Johnson scored his second touchdown of the game in the second quarter and a missed extra point led to a 13-7 Wayne lead, Ringling was stifled offensively for its next few possessions until, with 2:24 left, he found a crease on a pass attempt and scooted for a 60-yard touchdown that allowed Ringling to take a narrow lead into intermission.
The third quarter was owned by Wayne, who scored on three consecutive possessions to take a three score lead that seemingly would squeeze the life out of Ringling.
But Dillon and the defense answered back. With starting running back Slade Stewart injured, Gandy turned to his starting tight end to carry the load.
“He is a great player, an outstanding high school player,” Gandy said. “We didn’t want to go home losing, and him not having a chance to win that for us.”
Dillon rewarded his coach’s faith. On 15 carries, almost all of which came in the second half, the senior carved through a wearied Wayne defense, churning out yards and seemingly leading the team down the field on his own will.
Dillon played a part in all four of Ringling’s final touchdowns, scoring on runs of 7, 2 and 30 yards, plus the long catch that set up a Richardson sneak to take a 34-33 lead.
Perhaps at its most crucial point, the Ringling defense once again stood tall, forcing a turnover on downs that allowed Dillon to push across his final score.
It was the coup de grace of a magnificent fourth quarter effort from the Blue Devil defense, which stonewalled the potent Wayne offense at the most important of moments.
“We’ve had a great defense all year,” Gandy said. “We needed them to come through for us again when they had to, and they made some plays.”
In the emotions of the moment, it is natural to wonder if this game was too much of a good thing. There will be those who wonder if Ringling can rebound after such an emotional win.
Gandy isn’t worried.
“Our kids want to be state champions, and they know there’s one important game; the next one,” Gandy said. “There won’t be a hangover.
The seniors won’t let it happen.”
Dillon, the hero of the night and leader of his small senior class, agreed.
“We’re still hungry,” Dillon said. “We want to be champions.”