Versailles’ offense pounded its way to a 30-13 win over Columbus Grove in the state semifinals. The Tigers return to the final seeking their eighth state title.
By Alan Brads
Wapakoneta, OH – Defense, run game, offensive line, time of possession. Sounds like Tigerball.
The Versailles Tigers punched their ticket to Canton where they’ll meet 14-1 Kirtland in the state final, a rematch of the 2021 championship game which Versailles won 20-16, snapping Kirtland’s 55-game win streak.
Friday night’s 30-13 win over Columbus Grove in the Division VI state semifinals wasn’t flashy, but it didn’t need to be. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” as the old adage goes, and the Michael Osborne-Joel Gehret rushing attack was anything but broken.
They gained all the help they needed from the offensive line, led by first-team All-MAC left tackle Dominic Barga.
“Dominating up front controls the whole game,” Barga said. “We just gotta keep working in practice and we’ll be all right next week.”
Osborne and Gehret had no shortage of lanes to run through. Osborne played like his usual shifty self, eluding tacklers to gain extra yards, and Gehret did what he does best, plow through defenders like they’re not even there.
“They’ve got great size on us, but the offensive line did a great job technique-wise,” Head Coach Ryan Jones said. “That was something that concerned us going into the game with their size up front.”
That shouldn’t be chalked up to respectful coach speak. The Columbus Grove defense hadn’t allowed 30 points in a game since September 1.
Despite the happy ending, Versailles actually had a nightmarish start. It received the opening kickoff and began moving downfield, but Osborne threw a rare interception. Grove senior Zach Reynolds returned the pick 48 yards to the Tigers’ 4-yard line.
Trenton Barraza, the Bulldogs’ top running back and Northwest Conference player-of-the-year took a snap in the Wildcat formation and bowled into the end zone to take an early lead.
The Tigers’ offense settled into its strength and ran the ball back down the field, converting four consecutive third downs before the drive stalled. Gehret kicked a field goal on the first play of the second quarter.
The Bulldogs were scratched, but controlled the bleeding with a red zone stand. That is, until the kickoff, which Zach Reynolds muffed, and Versailles’ James Schmitmeyer secured on the Columbus Grove 7-yard line.
Two plays later Osborne scored on a QB sneak, a play that worked all night on third-and-one situations as often as the Philadelphia Eagles’ tush push.
Just 49 seconds into the quarter, the Tigers had scored 10 points…and they had no plans of stopping at 10.
The defensive line came alive for Versailles, batting down a pass and dragging down Barraza for no gain.
On third-and-long, defensive back A.J. Griesdorn tapped his toes on the sideline for what should have been called an interception, but the officials ruled him out of bounds.
No matter, a shanked punt gave the ball back to Osborne & Company in plus territory. More running, more misdirections, Gehret running off tackle, Osborne slithering through the heart of the defense, and with 6:54 left in the second quarter, Gehret plunged in from the 1-yard line for a 17-7 lead.
With a chance to score before receiving the halftime kick, the Bulldogs’ run-heavy offense turned to the air, but on fourth-and-2, Griesdorn secured a circus catch for an interception that no official could take away from him. Granted, on fourth-and-2, he would’ve been better off batting the ball down, which he clearly realized after reality set in, but the catch was nothing short of a physical wonder, albeit a mental blunder.
In the spirit of Black Friday, Jones wouldn’t content himself with just a field goal and got greed. He wanted six points and Osborne delivered. Showing no signs of timidity following his interception, Osborne dropped a phenomenal pass into the arms of Jace Watren on a 24-yard fade route with just 13 ticks left in the half.
A blocked extra point sent the teams to the locker room with Versailles riding the wave of a 23-0 second quarter.
The Bulldogs once again came out swinging, stringing together their lone true touchdown drive, ending in a 6-yard touchdown run by quarterback Landon Best, another NWC first-teamer. The two-point conversion fell flat, protecting Versailles’ two-score lead at 23-13.
Despite the orange and black uniforms, the Tigers played more like boa constrictors in the second half, slowly but surely squeezing the life out of their opponent. Thanks to a consistent push from the offensive line, they kept the football until the third quarter expired, and on the opening play in the fourth, Gehret scored his second touchdown, this time from two yards out for a 30-13 lead.
“It all starts with the big guys up front,” Jones said. “Those guys have been getting the job done all year. We’ve had to move guys around with injuries and we had some of that tonight, and they haven’t skipped a beat.”
Osborne’s passing ability provided just enough of a threat to prevent Columbus Grove from truly selling out for the run. He never really had to deliver on that threat in the second half. They could run for seven yards at will, and there’s no reason to do anything else if you can do that.
With 9:20 to play, Osborne intercepted for the second week in a row to clinch the victory.
It’s not that Versailles didn’t pass because it couldn’t pass, but when the fastball is unhittable, why throw a changeup?
With 9:20 to play, Osborne intercepted Best — Osborne’s second QB-on-QB crime in as many weeks, and effectively ended the game. The Tigers ran eight minutes off the clock, and after a turnover on downs, Lane Bergman picked off Best for the third time to bring out the offense in Victory formation.
“When we needed to run the ball, when everyone knew we needed to run the ball, we moved down the field, and drained the clock,” Jones said. “Yeah we didn’t get a score out of it, but what we got was just as good.”
Bergman played an exceptional game, aiding Gehret and Osborne in the run game with a package of jet sweeps. From his run blocking to his route running, to his threat as a decoy in the run game, he’s one of those players that elevates the team in ways that don’t always show up on the stat sheet.
“Night Train Lane [Bergman] did a great job tonight,” Jones said. “He really showed that he’s quite an athlete. We rode the night train tonight all the way to Canton.”
For Columbus Grove this represents more of the same state semifinal heartbreak it has experienced before. The Bulldogs lost in the state semifinals in 2020 and 2022, and now stand at 1-5 all-time in the state semis.
Still, the season merits celebration. Back in early September the Bulldogs had lost two of their first three. It looked like all the doubters who said they graduated too much talent to make another deep run had hit the nail on the head. But instead of succumbing to that narrative, the Bulldogs won 11 games in a row to make it back to the Final Four.
Versailles seeks its eighth state title next Friday morning at 10:30 A.M. in Canton, which would be enough to pass Coldwater for second-most state titles in the MAC.
The game plan won’t be different. They’re not a sneaky finesse team. It’s no secret they’re going to let Gehret run hard and let Osborne be the intuitive playmaker he naturally is. The question is, can anyone do anything to stop them?
Kirtland will certainly be motivated, knowing Versailles ended its 55-game winning streak in the 2021 Division V state title game, and having lost to another Midwest Athletic Conference powerhouse in Marion Local in the 2022 Division VI championship game.
They had all the help they needed from the offensive line, led by first-team All-MAC left tackle Dominic Barga.