BELLEFONTAINE — Sidney nearly spoiled a record-setting night by Bellefontaine running back Garrett Gross.
The Yellow Jackets’ rally attempt in the second half fell short, though. The Chieftains held on for a 42-34 victory in a nonconference game at AcuSport Stadium.
Gross, a senior, was nearly a one-man wrecking crew as he ran over and through Sidney defenders for much of the game. He finished with a school-record 341 rushing yards and five touchdowns.
“You can’t simulate that during the week, no matter how much you talk about it,” Doenges said of Gross. “He’s 5-foot-10 and 205 (pounds), but he runs like he’s 230. He runs downhill and runs physical and has pretty good vision.”
The Yellow Jackets’ defense looked improved at stopping rushing opponents compared to last season in a 25-22 season-opening loss to St. Marys a week ago.
Bellefontaine, though, had no problems running the ball early. The Chieftains (1-1) gained more yards in the first half (336) than St. Marys did in four quarters a week ago, with the bulk (325) coming on the ground. Gross ran for 273 yards and four touchdowns in the first half and senior quarterback Grant Smith ran for one TD to help the team take a 34-7 lead by halftime.
“We told the kids they were going to come out pretty emotional with it being their home opener, and from watching film …we knew they could play really, really hard,” Doenges said. “We knew we had to weather the storm and take those punches back at them, and unfortunately, we just got ourselves down too much by halftime. That (four-touchdown deficit) isn’t within a puncher’s chance.”
It nearly was.
Sidney rallied late behind stellar running from EJ Davis, who ran for most of his 182 yards in the second half. The Yellow Jackets pulled within eight points midway through the fourth and forced Bellefontaine into a fourth-and-short with just under two minutes left.
An offsides penalty gave the Chieftains a fresh set of downs, though, and allowed them to run out the clock.
“We crawled back into it and did a lot of nice things in the second half, but I was hoping we learned from getting behind St. Marys by two scores and come out and establish (a lead) in the first or second quarter,” Doenges said. “We told our kids that the next eight games are going to continue to be (close) like this, and we’re going to have to learn and get some things fixed, and maybe next week we can be the ones who set the tone and the dominance early.”
Sidney (0-2) will face another test against a rushing opponent when it wraps up nonconference play next Friday against Dayton Belmont at Sidney Memorial Stadium.
“We just didn’t match their physicalness early tonight,” Doenges said. “Once we settled down at halftime and went over everything we did during the week, they relaxed a little bit and said it wasn’t going to happen anymore, and it didn’t happen anymore in the second half. We just have to set that tone on the line of scrimmage a little bit quicker.”
Davis scored a 29-yard run with 10:48 left in the third quarter to bring Sidney within 20 points. The TD run came one play after he ran 37 yards on a fake punt attempt.
The Yellow Jackets then stopped Bellefontaine at midfield on a fourth-down try. They scored soon after on a fourth down when Ryan Dunham threw a 36-yard touchdown pass to Quamir “Philly” Brown with 3:45 left to cut the gap to 34-20.
Gross had a long kickoff return after the TD and later scored on a 10-yard run with 1:06 left to extend the lead to 42-21 after a two-point conversion pass.
Sidney scored again on another fourth-down play. Dunham threw a 20-yard touchdown pass to Curtis Spangler on a broken play with 9:34 left in the fourth quarter to pull the Yellow Jackets within 42-28.
Sidney forced the Chieftains to punt and scored quickly after. Dunham threw a long pass to Brown to move the ball to the 2-yard line and threw a 4-yard TD pass to Brown three plays later to bring Sidney within 42-34 with 5:24 left.
Bellefontaine held onto the ball the rest of the way and ran out the clock. The Yellow Jackets had forced the team into a fourth-and-short with less than two minutes left, but the offsides penalty gave the Chieftains a fresh set of downs.
Sidney had eight penalties, most of which came in the first quarter.
“Some of those mistakes were by our sophomores, and they took this loss hard,” Doenges said. “I don’t think I’ve been around a class that takes losses as hard as they do.
“These guys battle. They know they put the ball on the ground or they didn’t have the right fit on defense or they jumped offsides, and that hurts them. That’s good; I’m glad. They’re extreme competitors, and when you match that with upperclassmen that are going to come and continue to work, it’s good. We’ve just got to keep cleaning up mistakes.”
The Chieftains finished with 458 yards of offense, 429 of which came on the ground. Aside from Gross, Smith ran for 78 yards. The squad averaged 6.8 yards per carry.
The Yellow Jackets had 305 yards. They had 24 yards on 15 plays in the first half but 281 yards on 24 plays in the second half.
Davis, a sophomore, helped lead the improvement. He improvised on broken plays, changed directions at other times and ran head-first into defenders.
“We had some busted plays, and he made some things out of them,” Doenges said. “He’s one of those kids that have taken a big step since last year. I’m really proud of that. His confidence is up, and he understands the game a little better. We’re going to continue to get good things out of him.”
Dunham completed 7-of-14 passes for 124 yards. Brown caught a team-high four passes for 82 yards.
Sidney’s highlights in the first half were limited to several kickoff returns by Brown, including one he returned 98 yards for a touchdown midway through the second quarter. He finished with 255 all-purpose yards.
The Chieftains had plenty of first-half highlights.
Bellefontaine started on its own 16 on the first drive of the game but quickly drove down and scored on a 33-yard run by Gross.
A sack by Dylan Shoukri forced the Chieftains into a second-and-16 from Sidney’s 48-yard line on the drive, but Gross ran for 15 yards on the next play, then followed with the scoring run on which he ran through the middle, cut left and dove into the corner of the end zone along the visitor’s sidelines with 8:59 left.
Davis appeared to break free for a 72-yard touchdown run on Sidney’s first play, but it was negated by a penalty. The Yellow Jackets lost more yardage from there and punted.
Bellefontaine drove 73 yards on its next drive and scored on an 8-yard run by Gross with 1:30 left in the first to take a 14-0 lead.
Sidney went three-and-out on its next drive and punted to Bellefontaine’s 7, but Gross ran 86 yards on the first play and Smith followed with a 7-yard run with 11:24 left in the second quarter to increase the lead to 20-0 after a missed extra point.
The Chieftains’ lead grew to 27-0 after a 5-yard run by Gross with 5:54 left. Brown returned the next kickoff for a touchdown to bring Sidney within 27-7 with 5:37 left.
Jacob Wheeler intercepted a pass to end Bellefontaine’s next drive. The Yellow Jackets’ next drive ended on a fumble on a pass which Bellefontaine’s Ethan Moore returned to midfield.
Gross scored on a 2-yard run with eight seconds left to boost Bellefontaine’s lead to 34-7 at halftime.
For the second consecutive week, Sidney was without senior starting receiver/defensive back Darren Taborn, who is dealing with a nagging knee injury he sustained in a scrimmage against Chaminade-Julienne. He is expected to return to the field soon.
The squad was also without senior receiver/DB Lathan Jones, who had a leg injury last week against St. Marys.
Reach Bryant Billing at 937-538-4818, or follow @SidneyOHSports on Twitter and @BryantBillingSDN on Facebook.