Dragons fall 33-31 in classic playoff showdown in Kutztown

JaQuan Hardy rushed for 149 tough yards against Kutztown in a 33-31 loss.
JaQuan Hardy rushed for 149 tough yards against Kutztown in a 33-31 loss.

A sensational season for the GMAC Champion Tiffin University Dragons (9-2) came to an end in a thrilling back and forth showdown at Kutztown 33-31 in the first round of the Super Region 1 playoffs.

The game saw six lead changes, including four lead changes in the game's final 7:37 as TU came up just short of reaching the second round. 

Tiffin got on the board first, using a defensive stand and a 16 yard punt return by Gavin Woods to give them great field position at the KU 37 yard line. Ten plays later, Nick Watson rushed it in from 4 yards out to give TU a 7-0 lead at the 6:50 mark.

The Dragons kept Kutztown off the board in the opening quarter but that changed quickly in the second quarter, as KU got in the end zone after an 84 yard drive. A 9 yard run tied the score at 7-7 at the 12:54 mark.

Tiffin struck back after another big defensive play, as Ross Moore intercepted a KU pass on their next possession and returned it 29 yards to give TU excellent field position again at the KU 21 yard line. Tiffin drove down to the 4 yard line but could not punch it in, settling for an A.J. Nickoli 21 yard field goal to make it 10-7, Tiffin.

Kutztown responded immediately with a 74 yard drive culminating in a 2 yard TD run, but the PAT was missed as KU edged ahead 13-10.

The Golden Bears got some separation on their next possession, hitting a big 45 yard pass play that led to a 21 yard TD toss at the 2:16 mark and put KU ahead 20-10 heading to halftime.

Tiffin mounted its comeback in the third quarter behind the arm of Watson. TU drove 65 yards with Watson completing five passes including an 8 yard scoring throw to Devin Butler at the 10:41 mark to get back to within three points at 20-17.

Both defenses stiffened over the remainder of the third quarter, allowing no more scores. KU put together a drive at the end of the third and into the fourth that brought them down to the TU 4 yard line, but the defense held KU out with big tackles by Chrystian Watkins and Charlie Cleveland. TU got another big boost when Ross Moore blocked KU's 23 yard field goal attempt to keep the Dragons within three points.

Tiffin responded with an epic 95 yard drive highlighted by a 23 yard run by Hardy and a 26 yard catch by Butler. TU retook the lead with a 17 yard catch by Butler at the 7:37 mark to put TU ahead 24-20.

The Golden Bears took to the air to maneuver down the field, connecting on 6 passes including a 5 yard TD toss with 3:43 left as KU jumped back ahead 27-24.

Tiffin again showed heart, responding immediately with their own 75 yard drive highlighted by a 22 yard run by Watson and a pounding 35 yard run by Hardy. Hardy then banged it in from 1 yard out to put Tiffin ahead 31-27 with just 1:26 to play.

The Dragons needed a stop, but KU hit a big 54 yard pass play with 53 seconds left that put them in prime scoring position at the Tiffin 6 yard line. A 6 yard touchdown pass with 44 seconds left put KU up 33-31, but Latrell Robinson blocked the PAT attempt to give TU a chance to kick a game-winning field goal.

The Dragons needed to get in position for that last kick, however, and the KU defense stopped the drive on 3rd and 19 when it intercepted Watson on a long pass play to secure the win. 

Overall the pass defense hurt the Dragons, who allowed KU to throw for 462 of their 537 total yards. Tiffin held a commanding edge on the ground 211-75 while the two teams matched each other with 23 first downs each. Overall TU had 403 yards of offense.

Hardy finished with a strong 149 yards on 26 carries, while Butler had a busy day, catching 12 passes for 104 yards and returning 3 kicks for 78 more yards. Stanley Jackson Jr. also had 59 yards on 6 catches. Watson threw for 192 yards on 22 of 42 passes.

Defensively Moore had a good game, posting 8 tackles and a 29 yard interception return and a blocked field goal. Carrington Contee also had 8 tackles.

Other defensive standouts included Jacob Mertus with 7 stops, Charlie Cleveland and Zach Goecke with 6 tackles and 2 tackles for loss each, and Justice Waller with 5 tackles.