As Ashland junior running back DaMario Watson stood on the field, trying to catch his breath after the Grizzlies’ 2018 season opener, he was adamant that his team is very much a second-half kind of squad.
His play was the prime example of that.
Watson scored what proved to be the game-winning touchdown early in the fourth quarter and then had a huge interception — that would have been a pick-6 if not for an Ashland penalty — to set up another score as the Grizzlies claimed a 21-12 win over Willamette at Walter A. Phillips Field on Friday night.
“We came out (in the second half) with positive energy,” Watson said. “I really got them hyped in the locker room and I just wanted to make sure we came out because we’re a second-half team. ... With our seven seniors, they really understand that we need to buckle down and really change the ego of Ashland football. That’s what we wanted this game to be, showing the new Ashland football.”
Watson was most certainly the bellco running back Ashland head coach Beau Lehnerz knows he can be against Willamette.
The Wolverines (0-1 overall) scored all of their points in the third quarter, with quarterback Damein Kirkpatrick throwing a pair of touchdown passes within a 3 1/2-minute span to give Willamette its first lead of the night.
Watson’s 32-yard burst through the center of the line set up his 6-yard touchdown run that put Ashland ahead 15-12 with 10:42 remaining in the game. Those two runs would have never happened if not for Grizzlies punter Brett Stone making the most out of nothing after he was unable to catch the snap on a would-be punt.
Instead, Stone tucked the ball under his arm and rushed for 13 yards and a first down, allowing the Grizzlies to keep their drive alive.
Watson — who rushed for 150 yards on 19 carries took over from there.
“He’s just a beast,” Lehnerz said of Watson. “That kid, he squats 420 pounds, he’s enthusiastic and our emotion and our heartbeat kind of goes with DaMario. Some of those runs helped turn the tide there in the fourth quarter.”
On the ensuing drive following the go-ahead touchdown, Watson’s interception gave Ashland prime field position in Willamette territory. It took all of one play for the Grizzlies (1-0) to cash in, as junior quarterback Rieger Sayre connected with sophomore wideout Nathan Carter on a perfectly-thrown ball down the Wolverines sideline for a 25-yard touchdown pass.
Sayre, who had to switch from No. 11 to No. 8 in the second half after his regular jersey was essentially ripped in half on a tackle, finished the game 18-for-32 for 184 yards and a pair of touchdown passes. He completed seven of his final eight passes on the night.
“The defense came back and Rieger made some nice balls to put those guys away,” Lehnerz said. “To be honest, he got his butt chewed a little bit at halftime about making good decisions, and that shows the competitor, the leader, about making those corrections in the second half. He got No. 11 ripped off, put on No. 8 and then he was a different cat.”
The back-and-forth nature of the second half was vastly different than the opening two quarters.
It was a pure defensive struggle for the opening 24 minutes, with Ashland scoring the only touchdown of the first half when Sayre connected with junior wide receiver Gabe Ekwall on a 10-yard strike to put the Grizzlies up 6-0.
Ashland took an 8-0 lead with three minutes to go before halftime when the Grizzlies got a safety after the snap on a punt went well over punter Elisa Thompson’s head and went rolling into the end zone.
Willamette could only muster 48 yards of total offense and three first downs against the Ashland defense in the first half.
“These kids, it’s a different group,” Lehnerz said “They’ve got buy-in, they’ve got each others’ back. A different team might have folded, but this team rose to the challenge. But the guys that have been our leaders turned the tide for us.”
Ashland 21, Willamette 12
At Walter A. Phillips Field, Ashland
Willamette 0 0 12 0 — 12
Ashland 6 2 0 13
A — Ekwall 10-yard pass from Syare (kick blocked)
A — Safety
W — Indell 53-yard pass from Kirkpatrick (kick no good)
W — Smith 28-yard pass from Kirkpatrick (run no good)
A — Watson 6-yard run (Watson kick)
A — Carter 25-yard pass from Sayre (kick no good)
Willamette — Johnson 5-22; Adams 10-64; Bendele 2-2; Kirkpatrick 3-0; Frazier 6-25; E. Thompson 1-15; Indell 3-21; Mason 2-14; JOnes 1-8.
Ashland — Name Watson 19-150; Harris 9-4; Sayre 8-0; Rodriguez 1-4; Stone 1-13.
Visitor — Kirkpatrick 7-21-1 99.
Home — Sayre 18-32-0 184.
Willamette — Smith 2-32; Johnson 2-10; Frazier 1-4; Indell 1-53.
Ashland — Ekwall 5-40; Carter 3-49; Harris 2-4; Stone 4-43; Reynolds 1-14; Warren 2-32.
Contact Danny Penza at 541-776-4483 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @penzatopaper.