BUTLER — Mud has a way of leveling the playing field.
The Eastside Blazers and Bishop Luers Knights staged Mud Bowl II in Class 2A Sectional 35 action at Butler Friday.
While neither team could generate much offense, Eastside’s defense continued its stellar play, producing two turnovers that led to touchdowns in a dramatic 13-6 win.
Eastside (9-2) will host Fairfield (6-5) in Friday’s sectional championship game. The Falcons were 35-0 winners over Prairie Heights in the other semi-final game.
While Bishop Luers entered Friday’s game with a 3-7 record, you can toss that record out the window considering the level of competition they’ve played.
While some of those losses are very one-sided, those losses were to unbeaten Homestead, once-beaten Bishop Dwenger and twice-beaten Carroll and Snider.
Friday, the Knights outgained Eastside 258-123, but couldn’t find the end zone, settling for two field goals against the stingy Blazer defense.
“As a coach, I couldn’t be more proud of our men. They battled for 48 minutes,” said Eastside coach Todd Mason afterwards.
“We don’t do it pretty at times, but I’ll give them credit on their grit and their grind. They never quit and they keep getting after it.”
After each team failed to move the ball on their opening possessions, the Knights started to gain some momentum.
On fourth and long, quarterback Carson Clark connected with teammate Scottie Vanlandingham for 22 yards to the Eastside 7. Runs by Ramon Anderson and Cameron Hedgecock pushed the ball to the three before the Knights were flagged for holding.
Clark dropped back to pass on the next play, lost his footing on the muddy turf and fell for a loss of six. A 37-yard field goal try fell short.
The Blazers went backwards and punted, giving the ball back to Bishop Luers inside the 45.
The Knights got inside the 10 once again, but again, Eastside’s defense drew a line in the mud, holding the visitors to a 27-yard field goal by Carter Drake with 11 minutes, 52 seconds left in the first half.
Eastside’s offense couldn’t get any traction. A punt by Laban Davis was partially blocked, one of four the Knights got a piece of in the game.
A play that turned out to be huge in the grand scheme of things happened when Luers’ Nick Birkmeier caught a pass against Eastside’s Mike Geiger. Try as he might, Birkmeier repeatedly tried to break free, but the Blazer senior held onto the receiver’s arm until he was finally tackled at the 16.
Instead of a possible 10-0 lead, the Knights gained only three more yards and had to settle for a 30-yard Drake field goal with 52.8 seconds left in the half and a 6-0 advantage.
In third quarter, with the Blazers backed up to their own goal line and facing fourth and long, the Knights broke through the line once again and got a piece of another Davis punt, but he got enough of it, and some friendly bounces got it to the Eastside 40.
On Bishop Luers’ next play, Clark dropped back to pass, but threw it right to Eastside’s Carson Evers. With a convoy of green jerseys in front of him, Evers took it 65 yards to the end zone. The Blazers missed the extra point, but tied the game with 43.3 seconds left in the third.
The momentum was beginning to turn.
Eastside’s Hayden Gardner tackled Anderson for a loss of six on the final play of the third, and after Clark found Jamie Johnson for 25 yards, Lane Cleckner sacked Clark for a loss. An illegal block penalty on the play cost the Knights 15 more yards, eventually leading to a punt.
The Blazers couldn’t move the ball on its next possession, but the defense stepped up big once more.
Clark dropped back to pass and threw into double coverage. Eastside’s Dawson Smyth tipped the ball, and teammate Dylan Bredemeyer came down with the interception near midfield with 7:57 to play.
On the very next play, Davis dropped back to pass and found Wade Miller in a sloppy, slippery foot race with a Bishop Luers defender for a 52-yard touchdown. Jaiden Baker’s kick made it 13-6 Blazers.
The Knights got 16 yards on a Clark to Hedgecock screen pass, but later in the drive, Clark lost his footing once again in the mud. A fourth-down pass fell incomplete.
The Blazers got the ball back with 4:42 to play. Needing some first downs to force the Knights to use their two timeouts, Eastside got one on a gutsy play call given the field conditions when Davis ran a naked bootleg around the left end for 19 yards to the Luers 42.
Dax Holman and Matt Firestine combined for 10 yards on the next two plays for another first. Eastside was called for two penalties after that, however, and the Knights got the ball back with 1:11 to play.
After Clark was nearly picked off on the first play, he hooked up with Vanlandingham for 12 to the Luers 26.
Clark was sacked on the next play, and the Knights were flagged for delay of game.
Just when it looked like they couldn’t do anything right, the Knights executed the hook-and-ladder. The original pass went from Clark to Johnson, and Johnson tossed it to the trailing Hedgecock. In the sequence, Eastside was tagged with a personal foul penalty, giving the visitors first down at the Blazer 43.
Clark and Vanlandingham hooked up for a 10-yard gain, but the Knights were called for a penalty right after that, and Gardner sacked Clark on the game’s final play.
“Take nothing away from Bishop Luers. They played their ever-loving hearts out,” Mason said. “To get a win against a program as prestigious as Bishop Luers, it’s a big night for Eastside football.”
Mason was Eastside’s go-to player in the first Mud Bowl game between the schools in a 1991 sectional game also at Butler. Bishop Luers came from behind late to beat the Blazers 9-7.
Friday will be the Blazers’ second attempt at a sectional title after losing 41-27 to John Glenn in the 2004 title game.
Keep an eye on the Sectional 36 championship game between No. 5 Eastbrook (9-2) and Eastern (Greentown) (11-0). The Eastside-Fairfield winner will play the winner of that sectional. Eastern was ranked 9th in the final AP poll and finished 11th in the final IFCA poll.
Being the road team in the sectional title game, Fairfield would host either school in the one-game regional round. If Eastside wins, it would host Eastern, with 35 being a lower-number sectional, or travel to Eastbrook for the regional.
Eastbrook lost the 2A state championship game last year and also played in the 2016 2A state finals.
Eastern is having its best season since 1974, when it went 10-0. In those days, however, the IHSAA used a points season to determine a single team from each of four regions per class for the state playoffs. Eastern, despite having an undefeated season, didn’t make the playoffs.