PURCHASE LINE — The Purchase Line Red Dragons will take on the Portage Mustangs on Friday in the District 6 1A quarterfinals, but they might have to do it without one of their own horses.
The Red Dragons advanced by defeating the Blairsville Bobcats, 20-12, on Saturday night at Barry T. Madill Field despite losing junior running back Josh Syster to a knee injury in the second quarter.
Syster left the game after just five rushing attempts, but he made the most of them with 117 yards. He gained 62 of them on a touchdown run on the game’s third play from scrimmage, and 33 more on Purchase Line’s second possession of the second quarter to set up the Red Dragons’ second score.
In that same series, Syster went down awkwardly on a third-and-9 run and limped off the field after a brief examination of his right knee by the trainer and coach Matt Falisec.
Purchase Line scored five plays later when tight end Isaac Huey got behind defensive back Cage Kinney in the end zone and quarterback Jacob Barnett hit him with a 10-yard scoring pass. The Red Dragons led, 12-6, with 5:59 remaining in the second quarter.
But without Syster, who came into the game as the No. 3 rusher in the Heritage Conference with 1,253 yards, the Red Dragons could not secure the win until the latter half of the fourth quarter.
“Losing Josh definitely made it tough,” Falisec said. “We had to rely on Kyle Day and Cullen Goncher running the ball. It was definitely a big adjustment and on defense as well.”
Purchase Line maintained its six-point advantage until early in the fourth quarter. Blairsville quarterback Zak Artley connected with tight end Devon Witmer on a 12-yard pass to set up a 6-yard touchdown run by tailback Sincere McFarlin with 10:18 remaining.
Zak Artley set a personal game-high with 17 completions and finished with 217 yards, while Devon Witmer caught eight passes for 124 yards, but Blairsville struggled all night at establishing the run. McFarlin, who also scored on a 5-yard run in the first quarter, finished with just 21 yards on 17 carries. With or without Syster as a linebacker on defense, Purchase Line held Blairsville to just 14 total rushing yards.
McFarlin’s number was called again on the two-point conversion try in the fourth quarter, but there was mix up on the exact play call and the ball ended up on the turf, leaving the score tied at 12-12.
“I think the downfall kind of happened on that two-point conversion play,” Blairsville coach Rick Artley said. “We had two plays called and Sincere thought it was the other one. … There was a miscommunication. So if you get a two-point lead at that point, with their best runner out of the game, maybe it’s a different. But credit goes to them. They’re a good team.”
What do good teams do? They respond, and that’s what the Red Dragons did on the next series. Just as Syster’s 62- and 33-yard runs were keys to Purchase Line’s first two scoring drives, Kyle Day came up with a 50-yard run on a counter to the left that put the Red Dragons on the Blairsville 10. Two plays later, Barnett kept it and pushed through the middle for a 3-yard score.
Day finished with 97 yards on 16 carries, with 86 yards in the second half.
“Kyle is a great kid and he goes unnoticed a lot because we have Josh and some other guys running the ball, but he carried the ball pretty much the whole third and fourth quarters. … The kids kept calling for the counter and said it was set up perfectly. They made the call. It was a good call and Kyle was able to break it for 50 yards.”
Almost nine minutes remained for Blairsville to answer, but the Bobcats next possession was disastrous. The series featured a two-yard rushing loss by McFarlin on his final carry of the game, an underthrown pass, and a long game on a pass to Isaac Witmer that was brought part of the way back on a block in the back.
The pass play did convert a fourth-and-1 for the Bobcats, but the series crashed hard on the next two plays. Zak Artley was called for intentional grounding, then was sacked for a 13-yard loss.
“We just got so far behind the sticks,” Rick Artley said. “Zak made a couple of bad decisions there and we ended up third-and-28. We got 16 of back, but we were still at fourth-and-12. In hindsight now, I should have gone for it.”
Almost seven minutes remained and Blairsville decided to punt out, but Purchase Line ran out the clock on the ground, gaining 53 yards on 10 plays. Blairsville used its remaining time outs, but Purchase Line was able to move the chains. The Bobcats could not stop Barnett, who gained the last 29 yards on five carries.