Bulldogs rally stuns Clippers

BROOKSIDE – After watching a 13-0 halftime lead evaporate into the humid Friday night air at Bill Jobko Stadium, a youthful Bridgeport team could’ve folded its tents and got ready for week two.

Not these Bulldogs.

Visiting Columbiana took its first – and only – lead (25-20) of the game with 2:02 remaining.

Undaunted, the Bulldogs needed less than a minute to regain the lead and hold on for a thrill-packed, 26-25, nod on Hall of Fame Night at Perkins Field.

“This was a really big win. I couldn’t be any prouder of the way those kids played … flat out,” a very happy Bridgeport head coach Rudy Vavrock said while still receiving congratulatory handshakes well after the final buzzer had sounded.

Trailing for the first time after Clippers’ freshman quarterback Mitch Davidson hooked up with Dalton Miller on a 38-yard scoring strike down the middle of the field, Bridgeport used a pair of long passes to take the lead back.

After an incompletion on first down that somehow used up 24 seconds, junior quarterback Bailey McGrath lofted the ball down the near sidelines for senior Colt Charlton. Despite being interfered with, Charlton came down with the leather at the Clippers’ 33.

“Practice makes perfect,” Charlton said of the acrobatic catch.

“Great catch by him,” McGrath chimed in.

On the very next play, McGrath looked for – and found – Charlton again. This time the sure-handed receiver pulled the ball in on the far sidelines. He was able to outmuscle a defender and break the plane of the goalline for a 26-25 lead with 68 ticks remaining to play. The two-point run failed.

“As soon as he (Colt) took the corner I knew he had the guy beat,” McGrath explained of the game-winner. “I just threw it up and let him be an athlete.”

Charlton said, “It was a great pass by Bailey. He couldn’t throw it any better.”

Columbiana, which hadn’t had much success throwing the ball all night with the exception of the late TD pass, couldn’t click on three straight throws on the final series, including an intentional grounding. A 12-yard hookup on fourth-and-20 was short of the mark as the Bulldogs had held.

“It’s a big win because we haven’t won a season opener in a few years,” Vavrock noted. “So, to get a win out of the gate like this, this feels pretty good.”

Bridgeport grabbed the early lead as McGrath found Carlos Kusic on a 1-yard scoring pass in the second quarter. The PAT was blocked. The scoring play capped a 14-play, 89-yard drive that ate up 5:22 of the clock.

With time winding down in the first half, freshman Emilio Saldana recovered a Clippers’ fumble at the Bulldogs’ 45.

On the next play, fleet-footed Jacob Ray took a handoff from McGrath on a jet sweep left. He followed some good blocking, made a cut to the outside and outran everyone to the promised land. Foreign exchange student Benjamin Behnke tacked on the extra-point, making it 13-0 at the break.

Columbiana didn’t waste any time in slicing into the deficit as it needed a mere three plays to reach the end zone.

Senior R.J. Rankin started at quarterback and ran an option, complete with a nifty cutback, for 60 yards to the Bridgeport one. Two plays later, Nathan Miller crashed over from a yard out. Nate Garolfalo’s point-after made it 13-7.

The Bulldogs responded on the ensuing series when McGrath flipped a seemingly harmless screen pass to tailback Bradley Pritchett in the left flat. A nice cutback 10 yards downfield, and a strong stiff arm a few yards later left the Bridgeport junior all alone down the near sidelines as he completed the 73-yard scoring play. Behnke’s PAT made it 20-7.

Columbiana scored late in the third quarter when Davidson, facing a third-and-25 from his own 35, took the direct snap and scampered 65 yards to paydirt, making it 20-13.

Six plays into the fourth quarter, Davidson, in the shotgun, picked up a bad snap and powered his way into the end zone from six yards out. However, once again a bad snap cost the Clippers as the count closed to 20-19.

Bridgeport tried to run out the clock as the hosts tuck to its ground game. QJ Williams carried the leather eight straight times, picking up 35 yards before twisting his right ankle. he would not return and was helped off the field following the game.

When the drive stalled, McGrath was back to pass under heavy pressure. An ill-advised toss over the middle was picked off by a Columbiana down lineman at the Clippers’ 40.

After the speedy Rankin collected a pair of stick-movers, Davidson faked into the line and found Miller wide open for the go-ahead touchdown.

North can be reached at knorth@timesleaderonline.com