GREENTOWN — With 10:33 left in the third quarter and his team leading 21-6 after a Sheridan touchdown, Eastern football player Zane Downing took the ensuing kickoff at his own 23-yard line, started down the right side of the field and liked what he saw.
“At about midfield, I saw a hole open,” Downing said.
That’s when he knew he was gone.
Downing broke into open space and pulled away for a 77-yard kickoff return to score and re-establish a three-touchdown lead. It was a backbreaker for Sheridan as the Class 2A No. 10-ranked Comets went on to beat the Blackhawks 31-6 in a clash of the last two teams that were unbeaten in Hoosier Heartland Conference play.
With the victory, Eastern clinched at least a share of the HHC championship, its first conference title since 1984.
Eastern led 21-0 at halftime. Sheridan kicked off and intentionally, or unintentionally, sent the kickoff just 14 yards downfield in the slippery, rainy conditions. The Blackhawks recovered on the Eastern 46 and scored four plays later.
But the Comets answered with Downing’s kickoff return just 14 seconds after Sheridan’s TD.
“We thought they might onside kick it again,” Downing said. “They kicked it deep luckily. The guys on the right side got the block through and [I] broke through the hole.”
With that, Eastern had control again and didn’t let go, taking time off the clock and keeping Sheridan’s offense limited to a largely unproductive outing.
Eastern coach Josh Edwards said the kickoff return answer was “huge, huge, because they had stolen the momentum. We had the ball to start the [third] quarter, they onside kick and recover and score within a minute and a half, and then to come back with that return by Zane was huge because that stole the momentum right back and I think from that point forward we dictated the game.”
And the Comets secured a piece of the HHC championship. Sheridan (5-3) and Eastern (8-0) each had 5-0 league records entering the game. Both wrap up their league campaigns next week.
“It’s awesome being able to be a part of something that’s done for the first time in 35 years,” Downing said.
Edwards talked about how hard the Comets’ players and coaches worked to reach this point.
“It hasn’t been easy, we took our licks years back and there’s a group of kids on the team this year — the seniors and the juniors, and actually all four grades — that have committed themselves to year-round conditioning, lifting, even during their [other] sports seasons. This is what we told them: We’ve been trying to get to the top of Mount Everest and the most difficult part is the top of Mount Everest.”
Downing ended the night with four touchdowns. He rushed 26 times for 173 yards and also scored three first-half TDs on a pair of two-yard runs and a 66-yard burst. Quarterback Nolan Grubb completed 5 of 7 passes for 66 yards and three first downs. Ethan Jones added 62 yards on the ground and Makhai Reed 38 in a combined dozen totes. Eastern kicker Lance VanMatre added a 33-yard field goal in the fourth quarter to finish the scoring.
While Sheridan was held to six first downs and forced to punt six times, Eastern had seven runs of 11 yards or more, and amassed 268 yards on the ground total.
“Coming in, Coach E put in the game plan — we knew the inside run they had cove zero so no man, so if you get by the middle linebackers you can break off a couple runs and we were able to,” Downing said.
“The line did a great job of working the guys up front.”
Edwards thought Eastern would have a physical advantage on the offensive line and put in plays to carve holes inside.
“We felt physically that inside the box, tackle to tackle, we felt like we had some advantages there strength-wise. We felt like we had some speed advantages in our backs, which you saw a couple times. We felt even though they were packing the box that if we could break that initial line that we could break out some big runs, which we did. That was a huge advantage for us — our offensive line play,” Edwards said.
“And I thought Nolan Grubb controlled the game. When we did ask him to throw the ball, it was on the spot.”