By KEVIN HARRIS
For three quarters, Providence was staying with Class 2A No. 8 Triton Central in the Class 2A Sectional 39 semifinal on Friday night at Bud Mendenhall Field.
But in the fourth quarter, the wheels fell off for the Pioneers.
Providence made two critical turnovers in the final stanza, with both of them leading to Tiger touchdowns in Triton Central’s 28-7 victory.
The Tigers (9-2) will host Paoli (9-2) in the sectional championship game next Friday. The Rams defeated visiting Clarksville on Friday in the other sectional semifinal, 55-12.
The Pioneers (7-4) tied the contest at seven at the 8:51 mark of the third quarter. Despite spraining an ankle in the second quarter, Providence quarterback Owen Mattingly made a 42-yard touchdown run on third-and-9 on a read-option play to deadlock the game.
Despite the TD, Pioneers’ coach Larry Denison knew it was going to be tough to score against a formidable Tigers’ defense with his senior signal-caller injured.
“It did swing momentum to us, but we knew it was still an uphill battle,” Denison said. “He gutted it out, but it kind of hurts our offense when we don’t have the throat of Owen keeping the ball and coming back on our counter play.”
Triton Central took the lead for good with 8:08 remaining in the fourth quarter. Tiger junior running back Jonah Thacker made a 15-yard touchdown scamper along the left sideline while evading two Pioneer defenders to put Triton Central up 14-7.
Then on third-and-7 at the Providence 29-yard line, Mattingly made a bad pitch to one of his running backs as the ball got recovered by Tiger junior Zack Simpson at the Pioneer 11.
Two plays later, Thacker ran into the end zone from 4 yards out to put Triton Central up 21-7 with 5:47 left in regulation.
On the ensuing kickoff, Providence senior kick returner Dorian Noel bobbled the kickoff and the Tigers recovered the ball at the Pioneer 29. Thacker ran the ball three straight times after that, with the final carry resulting in a 10-yard TD run at the 3:42 mark that extended the Triton Central lead to 28-7.
“The turnovers at the end of the game did us in,” Denison said. “A lot of us tried the gamble and tried to make too much happen.”
The Tigers took a 7-0 lead late in the first quarter. After Thacker made a 1-yard run, he exploded for a 50-yard TD run around right end on second-and-9 with 26.1 seconds left. Thacker ended up with 278 rushing yards on 38 carries and four touchdowns.
“We told the kid all week long that the kid runs the ball very hard — harder than anyone we’ve seen,” Denison said. “He doesn’t look like a big bruising back. But the kid runs extremely hard and keeps his legs driving the whole time.”
The Tigers nearly went up by two touchdowns at the end of the first half. On first-and-10 at the Providence 32, Triton Central quarterback Dillon Nelson launched the ball to the left corner of the end to one of his receivers. But Pioneer defensive back Conner Johnson deflected the ball away to prevent the score and keep Providence’s deficit at seven points.
TRITON CENTRAL 28, PROVIDENCE 7
Providence 0 0 7 0— 7
Triton Central 7 0 0 21—28
TC — Jonah Thacker 50 run (Samantha Dewey kick), :26.1.
P — Owen Mattingly 42 run (Mason Koetter kick), 8:51.
TC — Thacker 15 run (Dewey kick), 8:08.
TC — Thacker 4 run (Dewey kick), 5:47.
TC — Thacker 10 run (Dewey kick), 3:42.
Providence (0-1-0-1): Noel 0-1-0-1.
Triton Central (1-4-6-0): Dillon Nelson 1-4-6-0.
Providence (35-131): Matt Bell 25-131, Matthew Hayes 3-8, Mattingly
6-(-2), Noel 1-(-6).
Triton Central (49-322): Thacker 38-278, Nelson 11-44.
Triton Central: Brady Gossett 1-6.