PIASA – Vandalia had to work for each of its offensive yards on Saturday, but once the game was over, it was the Vandals who were celebrating an automatic berth to the playoffs.
Senior Tim Ritchey had his best rushing and passing days of the season, accounting for four total touchdowns and 244 yards, as the Vandals picked up their sixth win of the season with a 36-14 victory at Southwestern.
“To me, this was the best win of the year,” said coach John Stout. “Southwestern did a great job of taking us out of our normal game, and we (had to use) our secondary offense.”
The win means the Vandals (6-1) will play in the state playoffs for the second straight season, and that is something that players expected, but are still happy about.
Ritchey said that his second trip to playoffs will be a memorable one, and he believes the team can do some great things.
“It’s awesome,” he said. “We need to keep on building.”
Added senior Ryan Ambuehl, “I know that we can continue pushing on. I’m hoping to get past the second round, and we can do it if we work harder than everyone else.”
In the early part of Saturday’s game, getting to that qualifying win looked like it was going to be easier said than done.
Southwestern stopped the Vandals on each of their first two offensive drives.
Southwestern is known for lining up in many formations, and as expected, they didn’t do exactly what Stout anticipated.
“They didn’t,” Stout said. “This pocket had what I saw on film, and this pocket was all the surprises.
“It took us awhile to get going,” he said. “I looked up there one time, and there was 11 guys within 5 yards of the ball.”
So going to the secondary offense was the team’s only choice, but that wasn’t how it scored the first touchdown.
Southwestern was all set to make it three straight stalled drives before Ambuehl mishandled the snap on a punt and rumbled 83 yards with 4:35 left in the first quarter for the season’s longest touchdown.
“I definitely wasn’t expecting that,” Ambuehl said. “I was hoping for a first down, but when I passed the marker, I saw that maybe I could get a touchdown.
“One of the refs afterward asked me if that was in the playbook.”
All the while, Vandalia’s defense was playing its best half of the season, limiting the Birds (3-4) to just 16 yards on their first three drives.
By halftime, Southwestern had gained just 27 yards.
The Vandals forced three turnovers in the game, with Luke Smith intercepting a pass and recovering a fumble, and sophomore Colton Evans recovering a fumble.
Vandalia had five tackles for loss, including one sack.
“Our defense was lights out,” Stout said.
The Vandals were stopped on their next offensive drive after Ambuehl's score, but Ritchey scored on a 59-yard run with 7:20 left in the second quarter and added an 11-yard touchdown run with 1:21 left in the first half.
Both teams made some adjustments in the second half, with more passes being thrown for both sides.
After Smith intercepted a pass and returned it to the 50-yard line on the opening drive of the third quarter, Ritchey threw a 43-yard pass to a wide-open Wade Cowger, who secured his first touchdown of the season on Vandalia’s longest pass play of the year.
Later on in the quarter, Ambuehl nailed a 27-yard field goal, the first one for or against the Vandals all season.
The Birds got on the board with 10:12 left in the fourth quarter, after Vandalia’s defense softened up to prevent deep pass plays from being converted, though some acrobatic catches from Southwestern receivers still made for some big gains.
Ritchey added his third touchdown of the game with 5:23 left, running in from 29 yards. He was still trying to overcome sickness that he had battled the week before.
“I tried to put it behind me, because I knew the team needed me running, not being sick,” he said. “I liked how the passes felt coming off my fingertips.”
The Birds added another score with 2:21 left in the game, and for some reason, called two timeouts in the final minute of the game despite being down by three scores. When they got the ball back, they ran just one play.
Saturday, Oct. 6
Rushing: Ritchey, 21-167, 3 TD; Ambuehl, 7-120, TD; Smith, 11-30; Alex Newsom, 9-16.
Passing: Ritchey, 3-6, 77 yards, TD
Receiving: Cowger, 2-67, TD; Smith, 1-10.
Defense: Smith, INT, fumble recovery, 2 tackles, 4 assists; Evans, fumble recovery, TFL assist, pass deflection, tackle, 2 assists; Chase Woolsey, TFL, sack assist, tackle, 3 assists; Jeff Lucken, sack assist, 4 tackles; Tristin Long, TFL, TFL assist, 4 assists; Newsom, TFL, tackle, 2 assists; Levi Carroll, forced fumble, 4 tackles, assist; Ambuehl, 4 tackles, assist; C.J. Runkel, 3 tackles, 4 assists; Cowger, pass deflection, assist; Rodney Tedrick, tackle, 2 assists; Ritchey, 2 assists.