The Red Devils lived up to their pre-game billing.
Undefeated and top-seeded Marion-Franklin (11-0), led by 6-foot, 192-pound junior quarterback Corry Benson, struck for four opening-half touchdowns en route to a 44-17 victory over fourth-seeded Big Walnut (9-3) in a Region 7 semifinal matchup Friday night at Selby Stadium on the campus of Ohio Wesleyan University.
Benson, who had a hand in all six Red Devil touchdowns, running for four touchdowns and throwing a pair of touchdown passes as he racked up 237 yards in total offense, gave Marion-Franklin a 14-3 opening-quarter lead on runs of 14 yards and 1 yard to offset a 38-yard field goal by the Golden Eagles’ Corey Gibson.
Mistakes cost Big Walnut dearly in the second period as Marion-Franklin scored two touchdowns in a 21-second span thanks to a Taimere Fambro interception of a Tyler Beam pass at the Red Devil 10 and a Lucas Garcia fumble recovered by senior linebacker Deshannon Shaw at the Golden Eagle 10. Benson tossed an 11-yard scoring strike to Joe Alverson to cap a 9-play, 72-yard march following Taimere’s pick and came back with a 12-yard touchdown pass to junior wide receiver Jaron Dukes to send the Red Devils into the break with a 30-point, 30-3 lead.
“Marion-Franklin is a very good football team with some outstanding athletes … they are sold in all areas of the game,” Big Walnut head coach Joe Weaver said. “We made some mistakes, mistakes they took advantage of … that’s a mark of a good football team.”
Weaver’s Golden Eagles, showing the tenacity they displayed all season, came back out and seized the momentum by taking the second half kickoff and marching 85-yards in 19 plays with senior running back Joey Johnson scoring from a yard out with 7:20 left in the third period. Taking a page out of the Red Devils’ book, Big Walnut got the ball right back as Grant Burks recovered Gibson’s onside kick at the Marion-Franklin 40. Three plays later, Garcia scored on an 8-yard run and the Golden Eagles were back in the game in a matter of 24 seconds, down by only 13, 30-17, with 6:56 left in the quarter.
“I couldn’t be prouder of my players, they never give in,” Weaver noted. “They battled from the opening kickoff to the final buzzer … they don’t know the meaning of the word quit; they just keep playing hard no matter how much time is on the clock.”
But as fast as Big Walnut pulled within striking distance of the lead, the Golden Eagles momentum faded. After senior cornerback Grant Beam recovered an Alverson fumble at the Red Devils’ 41, Big Walnut took the ball to the Marion-Franklin 8, but Grant Beam fumbled a pass crossing the end zone for a touchback. The Golden Eagles got the ball back and were faced with a fourth-and-7 call at their own 26, but gambled and came up less than a yard short of the first down early in the final period.
“We were so close to making the first down to keep the drive alive,” Weaver said. “I’m confident that our players would have responded and taken advantage of the opportunity like they have all season.”
The Red Devils responded to Big Walnut’s missed opportunity by scoring twice in 2:34 of the fourth quarter, minutes following a short punt and Fambro’s second interception of the game. Benson, the Division II Central District Offensive Player of the Year, took advantage, scoring on runs of 1 and 8 yards to put the game out of reach with a 44-17 lead with 9:03 to play.
Marion-Franklin totaled 386 yards and 17 first downs in 47 plays. Benson rushed for 109 yards in 13 carries while completing 12 of 16 passes for 128 yards. Alverson had 7 catches for 77 yards.
Big Walnut totaled 328 yards and 19 first downs in 79 snaps. Tyler Beam totaled 222 yards on a 15-for-31 passing night for 140 yards while rushing for 82 yards in 11 attempts. Garcia rushed for 97 yards in 21 tries. Seth Wandling had 4 receptions for 27 yards and Grant Beam 3 for 43 yards.
Marion Franklin advances to the Region 7 championship game next week where they will meet second seeded Dresden Tri-Valley (11-1), a 24-7 winner over the Golden Eagles’ arch rival in third-seeded New Albany (9-3).