NILES - The Girard Indians offense struggled for most of the game to punch the ball into the end zone after driving deep into Niles territory, and with just seconds remaining on the clock in regulation, it didn't look as though the Indians' issues were going to end at a crucial moment.
The Indians had the ball at the Red Dragons' 1-yard line without any timeouts and the score tied, and after two plays with nothing fruitful happening, overtime seemed to be on the horizon. That was until quarterback Christian Bello stepped in to relay the play to his teammates on third and goal.
"The first two plays, they stuffed us, but the last play, I was like, 'Guys, c'mon - we got to push. We need half a yard,' " Bello said. "(I) called hut, and we got the push.
Tribune Chronicle / R. Michael Semple
Girard’s Collin Cramer (7) upends Niles’ Tyler Srbinovich during second-quarter action on Thursday night. Following the play are Girard’s Trevor Gump (76) and Niles’ Addison Crain (58).
"I was in. There was no doubt in my mind, I was getting in."
Bello did manage to score on the quarterback sneak with 4.5 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter for the winning score during Girard's 14-7 victory over Niles at Eastwood Mall Field at Bo Rein Stadium on Thursday evening. The score capped off a comeback win for the Indians (1-0), who trailed from the 11:42 mark in the second quarter when Niles senior Corey Hayes ran 68 yards for a touchdown until the 11:17 mark in the fourth quarter when Bello connected with Jake Ryser on a screen play that went 49 yards to tie the game at 7 apiece.
Once Girard tied the game, the Red Dragons (0-1) tried to answer on the next drive, but a botched snap between center and quarterback Tyler Srbinovich at the Girard 1 caused a fumble that Girard's Treyvon Mills recovered at the Girard 17.
"We got the ball and we answered," Niles coach Brian Shaner said. "We had it down to the 1 (-yard line). We gave ourselves a shot. If we punch that in, you don't know what happens. Made a mistake, and we got to learn from it and we got to get better."
From there, both offenses cooled off until Girard got the ball at its own 35-yard line with 1:14 remaining in the fourth. On the first play, Bello, who went 4 of 12 for 125 yards passing, tossed to receiver Collin Cramer on a post route up the seam, and the senior receiver caught the pass near midfield, broke a tackle and scampered to the Niles 1-yard line to set up the final score.
Girard coach Pat Pearson credited his coordinators for seeing the space in the middle of the secondary.
"I'm going to tell you what, coach (Jim) Keagy and coach (Matt) Zuppo, our two coordinators, do an outstanding job, those guys saw an opening and they wanted to take a shot and they did," Pearson said. "It was a great throw, great catch by both kids. We have a lot of confidence in our guys."
Until the fourth quarter, however, the Niles defense held firm against the Girard offense, holding the Indians to just 63 yards of total offense in the first half. Even in the third quarter, when the Indians went on a 17-play, nine-and-a-half minute drive that advanced as far as the Niles 7, the Red Dragons stopped the Indians from producing any points.
Still, Shaner said the unit rued giving up the two big passing plays, which accounted for 113 of Girard's 253 total yards.
"I thought our defense played a phenomenal game," Shaner said. "I thought they flew around, I thought they made tackles. A big screen play for a touchdown and the post Girard threw there to get down at the 1. They made the big plays when they had, and hats off to coach Pearson who did a great job."
Picking up his first win of his head coaching career, Pearson admitted it was a big win for the Indians, who lost their last two matchups with the Red Dragons. He also said the team has a lot upon which to improve.
"It's the first game of the year, and it does set the tone for the rest of the season," Pearson said. "It's a big step for this program. We got a lot of work to do still and we got a long way to go."