DAYTON, Ohio - A cold, windy night in Dayton, Ohio, featured two teams with different playoff backgrounds but the same goal, looking for a state title chance. Moeller had never lost a state semifinal game going into Saturday night's contest, while Pickerington North has never won a playoff game coming into this postseason. Experience would prevail as the Crusaders walked away with 26-21 victory.
The opening coin toss was won by Moeller (11-3) as they deferred to receive the ball until the second half. The Crusader defense came out strong forcing a three-and-out for Pickerington North (12-2) on their first drive. The Panthers defense was not as successful as Moeller was able to score courtesy of a 32-yard field goal by senior place kicker Matt Reiniger.
The Crusaders had an early 3-0 lead with 8:40 remaining in the first quarter, but that advantage would be short-lived. Pickerington North's powerful offense was on display during the team's second drive of the night with Northwestern commit Godwin Igwebuike breaking tackles and having back-to-back long runs for 27 and 34 yards.
The Panthers' running back set up quarterback Mason Olszewski for an easy 1-yard run into the end zone, after a successful PAT the Panthers took a 7-3 lead with 7:36 remaining in the opening quarter.
A defense known for only giving up an average of 10 points per game came up big as Moeller drove down to the 9-yard line, but Spencer Iacovone's pass was intercepted by Panthers' linebacker Warren Stoddard at the goal line which secured the score at the end of the first quarter with Pickerington North holding a 7-3 advantage
Moeller's defense countered Pickerington North's performance by pressuring the pocket and preventing any positive yards as the Panthers' were forced to punt. A bad punt in fact gave Moeller the ball at their oppositions 48 yard-line.
The story through much of the first half for the Crusader offense was the split rushing plan between Iacovone and Watkins, but teammate Joe Eramo capped off the short drive with an 11-yard touchdown run to give Moeller the 10-7 lead with 9:29 remaining in the second quarter. Moeller threatened again in the final seconds of half, but fumbled as time expired inside the 5-yard line. Moeller led 10-7 at the break.
The second half started as Moeller received the kickoff as their Jack Gruber returned it 42 yards on the first play of the quarter but then the two teams traded punts quickly after that big play. When Moeller got the ball back on their following drive Eramo started right where he left off scampering for 43 yards setting up the Crusaders inside the red zone. Moeller settled for a 22-yard field goal from Reiniger to extend their lead to 13-7.
Then the third quarter turned into a rushing party as the Panthers' Igwebuike opened their next drive with a 76-yard touchdown run giving his team a 14-13 lead.
Moeller responded by giving the ball back to their 5-foot-9 senior, who took it 34 yards for another score, Eramos' second touchdown of the game as the Crusaders ended the quarter with a 20-14 lead.
Only a few moments into the fourth quarter however, the Panthers' Olszewski completed a 55-yard touchdown pass to classmate Justin Childers as the clock hit 11:48 remaining on the scoreboard leading 21-20.
Moeller's defense stepped up after their offense was forced to punt on the following possession as Logan Kelleher intercepted Olsewski at the North Pickerington 44-yard line.
Watkins capped of a four-minute drive for the Crusaders by rushing it into the end zone from seven yards out, making the score 26-21. However, Moeller was unsuccessful on their two point conversion attempt to extend their lead, as with 3:41 to go in the game, Moeller led 26 to Pickerington North's 21.
The Panther's offense ate up almost all of the remaining 3:41 by driving the length of the field and setting up inside the 10-yard line for a first-and-goal opportunity. As they hoped to dive into the end zone and celebrate, Igwebuike fumbled and Moeller recovered at the 1-yard line, as the Crusaders would take one knee and celebrate their return to Canton a chance to win another state title.
Moeller dominated the game on the ground as they held a 320 to 193 advantage in rushing yards. Eramo finished with 154 yards and two scores on 16 carries. Watkins tallied 115 yards and a touchdown on 36 attempts while also catching three balls for 45 yards.
The Crusaders will face Toledo Whitmer (14-0), who knocked off Mentor Saturday night in the state's other Division I semifinal, at Canton Fawcett Stadium next Saturday night at 7 p.m. in the state championship game.