By Gary R. Rasberry
FORT RECOVERY -- The Mercer County offense looked like a team that had a week off before playing its first round Interstate Football League playoff game on Saturday.
Fortunately, the Cougar defense looked stronger than ever.
The defense held West Ohio to negative 20 yards rushing and just 71 yards of total offense as the Cougars beat the Wranglers 27-6 in the IFL North Division semifinals at Barrenbrugge Park in Fort Recovery.
Mercer County (8-1) will host the Division Final on Saturday against Kosciusko County, with the game time moved up to 4 p.m. The Cougars are 2-0 against the Mustangs this season, beating them 36-20 in the second meeting on Sept. 17 at Fort Recovery.
The Mustangs beat LaGrange County 26-12 on Saturday. West Ohio ends its first year in the IFL at 1-8. The high-scoring Cougar offense, which beat the Wranglers in the first two meetings by a combined score of 82-0, struggled early before finally scoring just after the start of the second quarter when Chad Timmerman punched it in from a yard out.
The Wranglers scored its lone touchdown on a bit of trickery after Adam Wenning's 22-yard run ended with a fumble. Brandt Huttis scooped up the ball at the Wrangler 40 and maneuvered through the defense until he got to the Cougar 40, where he pitched the ball to Bobby Huttis, who ran in the final 40 yards for the score.
The Cougars got the lead for good after the Wranglers' score, needing just six plays thanks in part to a 35-yard pass play from Wenning to Kirk Link to put he ball at the Wrangler 26. Wenning then teammed up with Chris Guggenbiller for 18 more yards to put the ball at the eight. Wenning ended the drive with a TD run covering the final eight yards.
The razzle-dazzle defensive play was the only score for West Ohio as Mercer County's defense dominated. Earlier in the second quarter, West Ohio marched its way to the one-yard line, where the Cougars stopped a run-in at the line of scrimmage, then moved back five yards when the Wranglers were called for a false start. On fourth-and-six, Bobby Huttis looked for Brandt Huttis in the end zone, but the ball got nowhere near the receiver.
Bobby Huttis was hit hard all day as Cougar defenders sacked him five times and allowed him just three positive yardage runs on eight carries. On the final play of the first half, a high snap in the shotgun sent Huttis scrambling before getting knocked down for a 21-yard loss. Huttis finished with a minus 35 yards rushing in the game.
"They've been our leadership all year," said Wenning of the defense. "They put all that pressure on their quarterback."
West Ohio carried the ball 19 times and was hit for negative 20 yards.
"Our D-Line did a helluva job today," said linebacker Ron Kahlig, who was in on many of the hits during the game. "Linebackers played their positions. (Defensive backs) wouldn't let anyone behind them. Defense just played a helluva game all around."
Wenning got the Cougars' offense going again when he found Eric Schmitz for a six-yard touchdown strike on the second series of the second half to wrap up a 10-play, 55-yard drive. Guggenbiller scored from two yards out late in the fourth quarter to make it 27-6.
"We were struggling early on," said Wenning, who finished 11-of-21 for 174 yards and two interceptions and added 32 yards rushing. "You can tell we haven't played (since Sept. 17). It took a couple of plays to get our timing down. Once we did, we moved the ball. The line did a good job opening up holes for Chad to run through and Guggs to run through."
Timmerman finished with 62 yards rushing and Guggenbiller added 38 yards on five carries. Craig Schwieterman, who did not make it to the field until 30 seconds before kickoff, had four catches for 68 yards.
Neal Garrison was the offensive leader for the Wranglers, making seven catches for 90 yards.
The Cougars were not facing the exact same team that was shutout in the two regular season meetings. Several of the players on the Wranglers also played this season with the Lima Warriors' semi-pro team, even wearing Warrior helmets in the game.
"We're not going to use that as an excuse," said Wenning. "We made so many mistakes as a team. We're lucky to get the win and come out next week."