Meadville had the ball on its own nine-yard line. The Bulldogs had to drive nearly the entire field to win the game with about two and a half minutes left in regulation.
It took Khalon Simmons one play.
The explosive junior took the hand off 91 yards for what would be the game winning touchdown.
“The blocking on that play was elite. It was open all night, but we didn’t have the speed to hit it quick enough — no offense to Amarri — but the second I hit it, I cut it outside and ran,” Simmons said. “I was dead tired, but it was a good play.”
The play was a trap-dive to the fullback right up the gut. It had been successful all game with fullback Amarri Lewis, but Meadville head coach Ray Collins had a idea.
“Our trap had been hitting pretty good all night long with the fullback. I said ‘lets put a bit more speed there,’ and moved Khalon back there,” Collins said. “Amarri had done a great job, but I had a hunch that if the trap hit and Khalon had the ball, it could go.”
Collins’ hunch gave Meadville the go-ahead touchdown. The Bulldogs beat Juniata 34-27 in the first round of the PIAA playoffs at Bender Field on Saturday.
The ’Dogs came out of the gates hot. Griffin Buzzell scored the game’s first touchdown on a 41-yard run early in the first quarter. Simmons scored on runs of three and one yard in the second quarter to give Meadville 20 unanswered points.
Juniata answered when Jordan Dickinson scored from three yards out with 56 seconds left in the half. Meadville was up 20-7 at halftime.
The Indians used the late-half score to build momentum. Quarterback Jacob Condo scored on a one-yard run on their first possession to cut into the Bulldog lead.
Simmons answered right away by taking the ensuing kickoff 80-yards for a touchdown. It quieted Juniata’s crowd and electrified Bulldog fans, but it was short lived.
Condo connected with Yaniel Ortiz for a 60-yard touchdown pass. Simmons blocked the extra point to keep Meadville ahead by seven.
Juniata tied the game at 27s early in the fourth quarter on a long run by Seth Laub. The Indians, despite being down 20-0, rallied for a 27-7 scoring run.
“We came out and shocked them a little bit in the first quarter and took a 20-7 lead into halftime, but I’ve watched enough film on Juniata to know they weren’t going away. They’re too good of a football team to fade,” Collins said. “They scored on their opening drive in the second half and I knew we had a ballgame on our hands. All the credit to Juniata, especially that quarterback. He rallied the team and made big plays when they had to. They tied the game 27-27 and had all the momentum, but our kids didn’t give up.
“They didn’t panic and stayed in the fight. They came up big on defense a couple different times, special teams too.”
The teams traded possessions in the fourth quarter but yards were hard to come by. That is, until Simmons’ 91-yard scamper.
Juniata got the ball back with 2:07 left on the clock. The Indians managed two first downs to move into Meadville territory. Condo looked to pass on first and second down, but pressure from Buzzell off the edge didn’t allow Condo to get a good pass off. After a seven-yard gain on third down, Juniata was faced with a 4th&3 with 46 seconds left in the game.
On the game-deciding play, it was clear the game was on Meadville’s home turf. The fans at Bender Field were loud and the energy was evident from the defense.
“I thought the crowd did a great job at the end getting our defense emotional and fired up for the last drive. For us to get a state playoff game here, I’m not going to complain about it,” Collins said. “I can see in a year or two to be on the flip side of this and make a trip somewhere. I was happy in the sense we had another home game and an opportunity for our fan base to watch our guys. It was also an opportunity for Griffin to go out with a win on the home field.”
Condo rolled to his right, but Lewis broke up the pass attempt to seal the game for the Dogs. It allowed the Meadville offense to run a play not often called by the Dogs, a kneeldown.
“When Amarri Lewis knocked that pass away on fourth down and I looked up at the clock and saw 42 seconds, I decided we’re gonna take a knee and seal the deal in victory formation. It’s not something we ever really go to because we just pound and pound away and don’t pay too much attention to the clock,” Collins said. “I did not want to do anything to give Juniata back the football. We took a knee and walked out of here after a very hard fought football game with an exceptionally good football team.”
Simmons led the Dogs in all three phases of the game. He ran for 181 yards and three touchdowns, returned a kickoff for a touchdown, blocked an extra point and was strong on defense.
“When you get the ball in his hands at any time he is capable of making a big play,” Collins said. “Defensively he flies around, makes tackles, defends passes and he’s really solid on special teams too. He’s an all around football player for us.”
Buzzell ran for 120 yards and a touchdown while Lewis ran for 88 yards.
With the win, Meadville advanced to the PIAA quarterfinal round. It’s tied for the furthest a Meadville team has made it in the state playoffs, something Simmons is acutely aware of.
“Hearing you’re gonna be one of the best Meadville teams in history is not normal. It’s not something that normally happens,” Simmons said. “You can come back here at 20 or 30 years old and still see your name in the record book. Just knowing that, and loving the game so much, it feels good to know you can break records and have fun.”
In 2016, the Bulldogs lost the West Allegheny 47-20 in the quarterfinals.
Meadville will play at Clarion University on Saturday at 1 p.m. against Jersey Shore. Jersey Shore, also called the Bulldogs, is the District 4 champion and boast a 13-0 record.
Juniata 0 7 13 7 — 27
Meadville 7 13 7 7 — 34
M — Griffin Buzzell 41 yard run (Xp good)
M — Khalon Simmons 3 yard run (Xp good)
M — Khalon Simmons 1 yard run (Xp no good)
J — Jordan Dickinson 3-yard run (Xp good)
J — Jacob Condo 1-yard run (Xp good)
M — Khalon Simmons 79 kickoff return (Xp good)
J — Yaniel Ortiz 60-yard pass from Jacob Condo (Xp no good)
J — Seth Laub 38-yard run (Xp good)
M — Khalon Simmons 91-yard run (Xp good)
RUSHING: J — Condo 15-134, Dickinson 4-20, Laub 2-38, Harr 5-3, Ehrenzeller 1-3; M — Simmons 21-181, Buzzell 18-120, Lewis 8-88, Longstreth 2-(-2).
PASSING: J — Condo 14-31 136 yds 1 td; M —Longstreth 0-3 1 int
RECEIVING: J — Ortiz 7-85, Harr 6-48, Smith 1-3.