By JOSH SIGLER
It was clear that Blue Devil football had made significant progress in its quest to close the gap. But in the end, that progress fell just short of being enough to reel in an elusive regional title.
The Class 2A No. 4-ranked Tipton football squad fell to three-time defending state champion and No. 5-ranked Fort Wayne Bishop Luers 22-12 Friday night, the third time in as many seasons the Blue Devils’ campaign has come to an end at home at the hands of the Knights in the regional round.
This one featured a much different plot, however. After being routed by Luers in the previous two regional games, Tipton out-gained the Knights 238-166 and produced eight more first downs (14-8) than its counterparts.
After trailing 7-0 at intermission, the Devils clawed to a 12-7 lead with 11 minutes to play, but just weren’t able to contain Luers’ power running game long enough to hang on and win.
“We were right there,” Tipton coach Aaron Tolle said. “We don’t have anything to hold our heads down about. We went toe to toe with a really good football team. I think we played nine guys both ways for 48 straight minutes. We went toe to toe with them for an extremely long time. I couldn’t be prouder of my kids.”
Defense ruled the first half. Tipton drove inside the Luers’ 20-yard line on its opening drive of the game but came up empty handed, and only drove into Knights territory one more time in the half.
The Knights (9-4) took advantage of prime field position after a shanked punt set them up at the Tipton 28-yard line with 10:57 to play in the first half and scored in six plays.
Tailback Jaylon Smith did most of the work. The Notre Dame recruit ran five times on the drive, including a five-yard TD rumble with 7:41 left in the half to give the Knights a 7-0 lead at the half.
The Blue Devils (11-2) drove into Luers territory with under a minute to play in the half, but quarterback Austin Hooker was sacked on back-to-back plays to send the game to intermission.
Luers was called for an excessive celebration penalty on the way to the locker room — one of seven Knight penalties — setting Tipton up with good field position to start the third quarter.
The Devils took advantage. Hooker and fullback James Altherr paved the way on the ground, helping Tipton move 43 yards on six plays. Altherr ripped off a 27-yard run inside the five before finishing off the drive with a two-yard plunge at the 9:50 mark of the third quarter. After an offside penalty on Luers, Tipton chose to go for two, but was snuffed out short of the goal line.
On the first play of the ensuing drive, Luers had a 92-yard TD run by Smith called back by block in the back and unsportsmanlike conduct penalties, killing momentum before the Knights punted.
Tipton went back to work on the ground, milking eight minutes off the clock with a 14-play, 53-yard drive that ended in a one-yard sneak by Hooker with 11:05 to play. Tipton was called for a delay of game on the PAT, and went for two from the eight-yard line, where the pass attempt failed.
“We’ve gone toe to toe with just about everybody up front all year long, and there’s not a better defense in 2A,” Tolle said of his team’s ground attack. “[Luers has] one of the best defenses in the state, and we proved we could run the football on just about anybody [Friday] night. I was extremely proud of our effort up front.”
Luers answered right back to take the lead for good. Smith finished off a 10-play drive with a two-yard plunge, and his two-point conversion run gave the Knights a 15-12 lead with 6:01 to play.
“Our guys didn’t get down on themselves and hung in there,” Luers coach Steve Keefer said. “We’ve been to the dance before. We play a tough schedule, but we knew [the Devils] weren’t going to lay down. We knew they were a good ballclub. [Hooker] and [Altherr] proved it, and they played a great game.”
Luers’ defense forced a three-and-out, and put the game out of reach five plays later on a 13-yard run by Smith, who finished the night with 104 yards and three TDs on 19 carries.
Altherr finished with 134 yards and a TD on 28 carries in his final game for the Blue Devils.
Luers celebrated its 22nd straight postseason win Friday night. With the victory, the Knights will move up to Class 3A next season due to the IHSAA’s adoption of the classification rule which factors in tourney success over a two-season span.