If it's possible for the air to be sucked out of an non-domed football stadium, it happened at Marlington Friday night.
Dymonte Thomas laid on the turf having his leg examined by several Marlington trainers after getting tackled on the final play of the first half. The senior and University of Michigan recruit was down for several minutes before being helped to the locker room after being unable to put any pressure on his left leg.
The Northeastern Buckeye Conference's best offensive and defensive weapon spent the second half on the sidelines and was forced to watch everything unravel in a matter of minutes.
West Branch smelled blood and showed no fear in putting three touchdowns on the board in a span of six minutes to knock Division III's No. 1 team from the ranks of the unbeaten. The 35-14 win is the one of the biggest regular-season wins in the program's history and certainly sits high on second-year head coach D.J. Dota's list.
"It's up there," said a smiling Dota. "I have been in a lot of big games as a head and assistant coach and this win definitely means a lot to me and this program."
West Branch turned a 7-7 game at the half into a 21-point lead with a punishing stretch that featured TD runs by quarterback Troy James and running backs Brenden Wells (an incredible 353 yards rushing and a touchdown) and Bo Utley to become the first team to score more than 24 points against Marlington's defense this season. The scores by James and Wells came a minute apart after the Dukes fumbled the kickoff between the two touchdowns.
"Turnovers and injuries will hurt you in a big game," said Marlington head coach Ed Miley. "They took it to us in the third quarter and it got away from us for a little bit. I give West Branch all the credit for what they did tonight."
Trailing for the first time since being down 10-0 to Salem on Sept. 21, the Dukes looked discombobulated in every way possible. Following the two quick Warrior scores, they ran three plays and lost 17 yards. The negative yards gave West Branch good field position at its 42 following a punt. They needed just eight plays to make it 28-7. Wells carried the ball five times before catching a 27-yard pass from James on 3rd-and-7 to set up Bo Utley's five-yard touchdown run with 3:03 left in the third quarter.
"I am glad they smelled the blood and took advantage of it," said Dota. "In a big game like this, turnovers and big plays are so huge and we were able to get both in our favor tonight. The kids believed and played so hard out there against a great team."
Marlington exited the shellshocked mode briefly at the start of the fourth quarter when junior Steven Masters scooped up a fumble near midfield and returned it for a touchdown to make it 28-14 with 11:29 left in the game. Neither team showed much offense the rest of the sloppy fourth quarter as a steady rain fell until West Branch poured a little salt into the Marlington wound when Wells scored on a 7-yard touchdown with 2:49 left on the clock to snap the Dukes' 22 game home winning streak that dated back to the 2008 season.
For the second straight year, the Warriors looked like they were going to throw everything at the Dukes after starting the game with an onside kick attempt. The kick was recovered by the Warriors but the Dukes signaled for a fair catch on the kick, which never hit the ground. As a result, West Branch was penalized for fair catch interference and was forced to re-kick.
Marlington assumed possession after a normal kickoff and looked primed to take an early 7-0 lead on the game's first series after starting just shy of midfield, but the march ended short of the goal line. The Dukes ran right at the Warriors for all but one play of the 12-play drive, but couldn't convert when they fumbled on the one-yard line on first-and-goal.
All of the runs were less than nine yards while the biggest gain of the series was a 20-yard run and catch from junior quarterback Shawn Kirk to junior Jake Walker that moved the chains on 3rd-and-15 from the West Branch 35.
The Warriors only had the ball once in the quarter and moved the ball well against the stingy Dukes' defense after taking over on the 3 following the fumble. Wells did the lions' share of the work with five carries on the seven-play drive that resulted in a punt.
Once the second quarter started, the offenses warmed up a little on the cold, rainy night.
Marlington (8-1, 5-1) got on the scoreboard first on a 13-yard run by Thomas with 5:12 left in the half. The senior running back cut back across the field on 2nd-and-8 and juked his way past several defenders for his 18th TD of the season. The Dukes covered 88 yards in 10 plays to take the 7-0 lead.
"We had a shot to be up 14-0 (later in the second quarter) and we fumbled at the 1. We moved the ball well and it hurts not to come away without any points," said Miley.
Undaunted, West Branch (5-4, 5-1) answered the touchdown with one of its own.
Wells used his offensive line well and carried the ball seven straight times for 48 yards before James scored on a 17-yard draw with 2:49 remaining in the half.
"Sometimes you have to be a little lucky," said Dota in reference to not being down 14-0 and having a shot to tie the game before halftime. "We were also not lucky because we had other shots to go up in the first half. It was a little disappointing at halftime to be tied."
The Warriors missed a golden opportunity to take a halftime lead in the final seconds of the half after Brock Trimmer missed a 27-yard field goal wide right with just over a second remaining. West Branch took over at its own 40 and moved inside the 5 before Wells was wrapped up for a three-yard loss by Thomas on second down. Then, James looked for Kip DeShields in the corner of the end zone but the pass was incomplete forcing the field goal attempt.
Marlington ran the final play of the half --a 2 yard run by Thomas -- but it proved to be a costly two yards.
"It hurts and the kids hurt right now," said Miley. "Losing stinks but we have lost before and came back with great weeks of practice (last season) and now we have to do that for next week."
WEST BRANCH 35, MARLINGTON 14
West Branch 0 7 21 7 -- 35
Marlington 0 7 0 7 -- 14
MHS -- Thomas, 13 run, 5:12 2nd (Wade kick).
WB -- James, 17 run, 2:49 2nd (Trimmer kick).
WB -- James, 1 run, 9:00 3rd (Trimmer kick).
WB -- Wells, 11 run, 8:00 3rd (Trimmer kick).
WB -- Utley, 5 run, 3:03 3rd (Trimmer kick).
MHS -- Masters, 51 fumble recovery, 11:29 4th (Wade kick).
WB -- Wells, 7 run, 2:49 4th (Trimmer kick).
First Downs 24 12
Rushes-yards 478 128
Passing yards 35 35
Att-Cpl-Int 6-2-0 12-3-0
Fumbles-lost 2-1 1-1
Penalties-yards 7-75 5-65
Rushing -- West Branch, Brendan Wells 50-353; Marlington, Shawn Kirk 18-80.
Passing -- West Branch, Troy James 6-2-0 for 35;Marlington, Shawn Kirk 12-3-0 for 35.
Recieving -- West Branch, Brendan Wells 1-28; Marlington, Jake Walker 1-20.