Anatomy of Wayne comeback sums heart of Blue Devils

RINGLING — The scene was grim for Ringling.

The Blue Devils, playing in the Class A semifinals against a powerhouse Wayne team, had played an outstanding first half, taking a 14-13 lead into the visitor locker room, only to watch it crumble almost instantly in the second half.

Wayne came out for the third quarter like men on a mission, overpowering the Blue Devils on both sides of the ball en route to three straight touchdowns.

For all the world, the game looked like one that was quickly getting out of reach, like Ringling was being overwhelmed by the moment.

"We went into halftime and felt like we had them beatdown, physically," Gandy said. "But they got that 20-minute break and came out fresh again."

The big question, always, is how.

How did Gandy do it? How did he get his Blue Devils, trailing by 19 on the road to the defending state champions, to put aside a terrible third quarter and claw back into contention in last Friday's semifinal?

How did he rally his quarterback Taner Richardson, who had already thrown three interceptions, into regaining his stride and confidence as the team's field general?

How, how, how, did he get his defense, blistered for three scores in three possessions, to stand tall and stonewall the Wayne offense?

The answer, it turns out, is not a complex one. There were no magic schemes, no Hollywood speeches and no secret elixirs.

For Gandy and the Blue Devils, it was as simple as keeping alive the belief that the game could be won, then taking the steps to make that belief reality.

"Our emotions were still even, and we still felt like we could win the game," Gandy said. "It all came down to adjustments, making the right ones and doing it quickly."

It began with 2:56 left in the third quarter. Wayne had just taken a 33-14 lead, courtesy of a 51-yard scoop-and-score on a Richardson fumble. As the Blue Devils prepared to receive the kickoff, Gandy had some words for his quarterback.

But instead of a tongue-lashing or criticism, Gandy gave Richardson some simple instructions:

Get a score. Quickly.

"I told him we needed to score before the fourth quarter started," Gandy said. "We needed to score right (then)."

The possession started off with an incompletion, before Richardson found space on a 65-yard scramble set up by, ironically enough, a missed blocking assignment. Richardson made the defender miss in the backfield before dashing to the 2-yard line.

"The (Wayne) kid was tired, and Tanner made him miss," Gandy said. "Once he did, he's really good in the open field."

After a motion penalty was called against the Blue Devils, giving the team 1st-and-goal at the 7-yard line, senior Jackson Dillon scored on his first opportunity, pulling the deficit back to 12 with 1:34 left in the third quarter.

Dillon, normally a tight end, was one of the key cogs of the comeback, picking up the bulk of his 152 rushing yards, and all three of his touchdowns, in the final 14 minutes of the game.

But perhaps the real star was the offensive line. Battered and bruised by a physical Wayne front seven, the Blue Devils found a way late to create space for Dillon, who did the rest on his own.

"Those guys up front just really dug in when they needed to," Gandy said.

With a score under its belt, Gandy now needed his defense to find answers it hadn't been able to against Wayne running back Lowden Johnson and quarterback Sam Martin.

To help this task, Gandy gathered input from each of his assistant coaches, each watching a different player, to find defensive breakdowns and mismatches.

"It isn't big," Gandy said. "Just simple adjustments, but those are the hardest ones to see sometimes.

"You're not here to watch the ballgame, you're here to watch the players and coach them."

It works; Ringling forces a Wayne punt, giving the ball back to an offense that has been revitalized. Ringling drives down the field, using a heavy dose of Dillon runs.

Dillon's running lanes are not large, but they are enough for an athlete of his caliber, especially when he found the endzone on a two-yard fourth-and-goal run.

But the play of the drive, without a doubt, is the 30-yard strike Richardson delivers to Dillon on a rollout pass, perfectly fitting the ball in the hole created by a soft Cover 2 zone coverage. Dillon survives the collision from the safety without dropping the ball.

"He really just stuck it in there," Gandy said. "Not a lot of kids can make that throw, and not a lot of kids can make that catch."

With 6:50 left in the game, the scoreboard still favored Wayne 33-28, but nobody had any doubt which team had taken control of the game.

"We were really feeling it at this point," Gandy said. "We weren't in a hurry anymore, there was no sense that we had to panic."

On the ensuing Wayne drive, Ringling forces a fumble, Wayne's first turnover of the game, when Johnson coughs up the ball and it is recovered by Ronnie Ward at the Wayne 30-yard line with 6:36 left in the game.

"We knew once they had gotten up by 19 that if they scored again, they were going to win, no matter when it came," Gandy said. "Our defense really turned the heat up."

The pitch on the Ringling sideline after the turnover became feverish, almost frantic. The team smells blood in the water and takes advantage, calmly and methodically moving down the field.

The goal is not a quick score, but a slow dagger, into the heart of the Wayne psyche.

"We wanted to score, but we really wanted to chew the clock up while doing it," Gandy said. "Nobody wanted to do anything exotic.
"Just do what we believe in."

Ringling does just that, the offense resembling a battering ram as it punishes a worn down Wayne defense. With 2:56 left, Richardson plows his way into the end zone on a sneak.

Twelve minutes after the game seemed to have slipped out of reach for Ringling, the Blue Devils now clung to the same lead it had at halftime, a one-point cushion.

Now, with the momentum and lead squarely in its corner, Gandy needed his defense to deliver one last stop. It did, stonewalling Wayne on four straight plays to force a turnover on downs at the Wayne 32 with 2:01 left.

The series is exceptional from a defensive fundamental standpoint. Even late in the game, Ringling defenders are playing textbook defense: Dillon made an outstanding play on first down, stopping an option in its tracks. The secondary and linebackers cover every route the Wayne receivers try. It is a group that, even when physically fatigued, does not lose its mental edge.

Dillon, playing like an animal on both sides of the ball all night, found one last burst of energy on the first play of the Ringling possession, scoring on a 32-yard sweep to the left side with 1:53 left.

The run is set up by outstanding edge blocking by the Ringling backfield, who create a crease for Dillon to sprint through that leaves him against an undersized and mismatched safety, who Dillon easily outstrips to the end zone.

"When (Dillon) got back to the sideline he was aggravated at himself because he thought he should have taken a knee at the 5-yard line," Gandy said with a laugh. "But it's hard when you see that end zone."

Now leading 40-33, Gandy made a tactically risky decision by going for two, hoping to put the game out of reach with a two-possession lead. The play, a rollout pass to the left, fails, perhaps the only break that does not go Ringling's way in the fourth quarter.

But Gandy was okay with it. After all, he wanted to end the game on his terms.

"I felt that it was important for us to try to end the game with our offense, right there," Gandy said. "If it worked, I look a lot smarter, but that was my decision."

Any potential second-guessing became pointless on Wayne's final possession of the game, which ended on, surprise, a great defensive effort by the Blue Devils. Ward, from his cornerback spot, forces the Wayne receiver on the outside off his route thanks to strong press coverage. With the timing ruined, Ward threw the ball to where he expected his receiver to be.

Instead, he found the waiting arms of Tanner Richardson, who made a shoe-string interception that sealed one of the most remarkable comebacks in school, and perhaps state, history.

In the final 15 minutes of the game, the Blue Devils offense outscored Wayne 26-0, while the defense never even let the Bulldogs reach midfield. It was a game that, Gandy admitted, will be talked about in Ringling for years.

That is, if the team can take care of business this weekend, against a Texhoma team that will not be impressed by Ringling's past achievements when the two square off in a semifinal contest in Enid Saturday.

But a victory hangover, Gandy said, won't be an issue.

"On the Sunday after the game, we came in to watch film, and the guys just wanted to see Texhoma," Gandy said. "They didn't care about going over the Wayne stuff again.

"This is a group that doesn't want to waste the opportunity they have."

And after seeing the determination Ringling showed last Friday, when every second was crucial and there was no room for any mistakes, it's hard to doubt him.

Spencer White