For a split second, it appeared the Aragon football team would get one last shot at the end zone when Dylan Kaye seemed to haul in a Daren Randolph pass inside the Hillsdale 20-yard line with under 30 seconds to play.
But Knights defensive backs Ethan Wheeler and Ben Weiskopf converged to strip the ball loose for an incompletion and the Dons turned the ball over on downs. Hillsdale quarterback Liam Smith took a knee on the next play and the Knights held on for a 17-13 win over the Dons in the 59th annual “Battle of the Fleas” rivalry game Friday night at Aragon.
“Our kids made the stop when they needed to,” said Hillsdale head coach Mike Parodi.
The win took on added significance for Hillsdale as it was the third win in a row for the Knights over the Dons. The last time that happened was in 1976, 1977 and 1978.
“I think it was a great reward for these kids,” Parodi said. “This group was a special group. … It was just a great ending for the seniors.”
For nearly three quarters, it looked as if the Hillsdale defense was going to keep Aragon off the scoreboard. The Dons had a total of 61 yards in the first two quarters as the Knights built a 17-0 lead when Smith hooked up with Weiskopf for a 14-yard touchdown with 1:54 left in the third quarter.
But then the Aragon offense finally came alive. The Dons scored their first touchdown of the night with eight seconds left in the quarter and cut the lead to 17-13 with 6:49 to play. A defensive stop from the Dons gave them the ball back at their own 22. They moved to midfield before that fourth-down pass fell incomplete to seal the win for the Knights.
“That turned out to be a pretty good football game,” said Aragon head coach Steve Sell. “In games like this, it comes down to one or two plays.”
Running back Josh Violette was the workhorse for Hillsdale and it was his running between the tackles that had Aragon looking for answers. Violette finished with 153 yards and a touchdown on 25 carries, nursing a bad shoulder the whole time.
“He hasn’t practiced in about a week and half,” Parodi said, who said the doctor cleared Violette to play in Friday’s game.
“He came out yesterday and he said, ‘ I want to go,’” Parodi continued. “He played his butt off.”
Aragon would finish the game with more yards that Hillsdale, outgaining the Knights 252-243, but nearly 200 of those yards came in the second half. Randoph completed 11-of-18 passes for 126 yards and score. Alan Tanielu carried the ball twice for 71 yards, but Jared Walsh, who went for more than 250 yards last week, we held to just 30 yards on 12 carries.
“It was a game of adjustments,” Parodi said. “That’s what I love about this game.”
In the first half, however, it was looking like Hillsdale was simply going to slow squeeze the life out of the Dons. The teams turned the ball over on downs on their first possessions of the game before Hillsdale took control on their second series. Starting from their own 43, the Knights went 57 yards on eight plays. The key was a 36-yard quarterback keeper on the second play of the drive that took the ball to the Aragon 18. Violette capped it was a 3-yard bull rush to put the Knights up 7-0 with 11:02 left in the opening quarter.
The Dons were forced to punt on their next possession and Hillsdale went to work again. The Knights drove to the Dons’ 14-yard line before settling for a for a 30-yard Justin Flohr field goal with just over two minutes before halftime. It was Smith, again, who had the big play on the drive as his 21-yard scramble got the Knights into the red zone.
The Knights went on to score on their first drive of the third quarter as they manhandled the Dons up front. Using Violette up the gut, Hillsdale marched 79 yards on 11 plays, getting a 32-yard rumble from Violette along the way.
“We want to instill our will (on the other team),” Parodi said.
The drive was ended when Smith and Weiskopf hooked up for a score and a 17-0 lead with just under two minutes left in the quarter.
After that, the Dons finally went to work. Starting their next drive on their own 45, the Dons needed just four plays to find the end zone, the big play being a Kaye 17-yard run, during which he broke three or four tackles. The drive culminated with Randolph finding Lloyd Walter in the flat, who then did the rest. He broke the first tackle attempt and then carried a pair of defenders into the end zone for an 15-yard touchdown and the Dons were down 17-7.
The Dons forced Hillsdale to punt on its next possession and when Aragon got the ball back, Alan Tanielu made the play of the game. With the Dons facing fourth-and-long, Tanielu lined up at quarterback, took the snap and headed around right end where three Hillsdale defenders were waiting.
With a swivel of his hips, Tanielu froze all three defenders and zipped past them, broke a tackle at about the 15-yard line and went into the end zone for an electrifying 53-yard score.
Suddenly, Aragon was down 17-13 with 6:49 to play. The Dons forced another punt and took over at their own 22 with 2:13 left to play with one last shot that came up short.
“We’re down 17-nothing and flat as can be and these kids just rallied back,” Sell said. “I love coaching this team.”