JEFFERSON — It wasn’t the same exact play, but it might as well have been.
Jeff Zeh took a handoff behind the big mass of humanity that is the Jefferson linemen and came out in space on the other side leading to three touchdowns for the Eagles as they earned a 20-8 home victory against McFarland in a Rock Valley Conference football game at home on Friday night.
Zeh’s 84-yard touchdown run in the third quarter gave Jefferson the comfort of a 14-0 lead with 1 minute, 3 seconds to play. It was an inside counter play on a 1st and 10 after Dean Neff had pounded away to open the drive at the Jefferson 3-yard line.
“I told the offense it was an impressive 97-yard drive even though 84 of those yards were on one play,” Jefferson coach Steve Gee said. “We’ll take it. When I was talking to Coach Achley after the game, he said, those darn counters always get you. Dean pounds the ball so well that they were overloading a little bit to him. (Quarterback) Logan (Wagner) was yelling, ‘inside reverse, inside counter; it’s going to work.’ They were there.”
The irony in the long touchdown run rested in the fact that Wagner already had begun waiting for the back judge to signal that time was running out on the play clock. The Eagles were starting to work on the game clock because they had a seven-point lead.
“Yeah, we were (trying to burn clock), but we aren’t going to turn down points,” Zeh said. “I broke through and I wasn’t going to stop.”
The senior running back, who is listed as a generous 5-foot-9, 140 pounds, had his share of success rattling off big yardage on a few different drives. Twice, he found success on the ground with counter plays shortly before scoring on similarly designed plays.
In the second quarter, he helped the Eagles flip the field with a 22-yard run to get into McFarland territory before plunging into the end zone for a 1-yard run with 4:01 to play in the second quarter.
On a 2nd-and-long, Zeh danced around some linebackers to give the Eagles a 3rd-and-1. A block in the back pushed Jefferson back to the McFarland 44-yard line on the next play and the Eagles responded with another inside counter play and Zeh scored again to take a 20-0 lead with 2:56 to play.
“It starts with the fake and with Dean (Neff) setting it up, but when I get to the hole, the linemen are covering me, so it’s hard for the opponent to see me as I’m running through there,” Zeh said. “So I get there and follow the linemen and then I get through the hole because nobody sees me until I’m through the hole.”
Neff, who tied for the team lead with 11 tackles, carried the ball 29 times for 146 yards. Zeh had 23 carries for 255 yards.
“It’s been effective against us for years to be very honest,” McFarland coach Paul Achley said. “They do a great job running it and they get you used to that (guard and tackle) sweep by pulling that backside guard and tackle. It was misreads on our part and great execution by them on their part.”
One week after relying on underclassmen to hold down the fort in the secondary on defense, Jefferson returned a senior safety to restore order. Connor Salerno closed on a pair of plays that made a difference in the way McFarland conducted itself. In the first quarter, Salerno broke hard on a bubble screen in the flat and dropped the interception that would have resulted in the game’s first score. In the third quarter, McFarland quarterback Nicholas Hall was flushed from the pocket and appeared to have room to run when Salerno closed from 15 yards down field to tackle the quarterback behind the line of scrimmage.
“I think on the back end, we had some really young guys on the back end,” Gee said. “Even Jeffrey, he’s not young but he’s inexperienced and hasn’t been a safety before. We gave up some psases on the back end last week. I didn’t sense that from the back end. …
“We talked to him a little bit this week because he still had a little bit of corner mentality and was coming outside in. I stood behind him and we talked about, you’re a force player: Here’s the lane, see it: Go. It took me twice and he had it.”
Perhaps the biggest difference throughout the course of the game for the Jefferson Eagles was the adjustment made in the defensive line. McFarland’s best offensive success came midway through the second quarter when it started pushing the tempo running the ball up the middle.
The drive stalled because of penalties, but it looked like Jefferson was vulnerable. Then the Eagles adjusted.
“The players we have react and see things while they’re playing the game,” said Zeh, who doubled as a defensive back. “Our linebackers started to realize where they needed to fill. They ran option every time and it got pretty obvious where they were going to run.”
Added Gee, “We talked all week about not turning your shoulders in the front line. I think our guys figured that out that even if you’re getting double teamed, if you turn your shoulders in the front line you’re leaving a running lane.
“If you stay square and take on the running lane, you get guys like Joel (Martin) and Dean (Neff) and Cole (Witucki) all did well. Zach Donley had some nice tackles on the outside, but if we just keep those guys from getting touched, those guys are our big tacklers and they did it tonight.”
Martin finished with 11 tackles, including two tackles for loss, and sophomore Brady Lehman made nine tackles.
Jefferson continues its season on the road against Evansville in Rock Valley Conference action Friday beginning at 7 p.m.
JEFFERSON 20, MCFARLAND 8
Spartans 0 0 0 8 — 8
Eagles 7 0 7 6 — 20
Rushing (att.-yds.) — J 54-400. Passing (comp.-att.-yds.-int.) — J 2-5-24-0. Fumbles-lost — J 3-2, M 2-2.
Rushing — M Frasier 11-54; J Zeh 23-255. Passing — M Hall 2-7-19-0; J Wagner 2-5-24-0. Receiving — J Zeh, Monogue 1-12.
J — Zeh 3 run (Fairfield kick), 4:01
J — Zeh 84 run (Fairfield kick), 1:20
J — Zeh 44 run (kick failed), 3:06
M — Dyer-ysaguirre 9 run (Dyer-ysguirre run)