Photos by Greg Barnett
Beckley – Friday marked three weeks since the Princeton Tigers had last taken the field. With the number of active Covid cases in Mercer County forcing the schools back to remote learning, the Tigers were out of game shape.
Still, when they needed to the most they dug deep and found enough to hold on for the win.
Up by a score on fourth-and-4 with 16 seconds left and Beckley driving in Tiger territory, the Princeton defense forced Beckley quarterback Maddex McMillen to throw the ball into an offensive lineman, preserving a 21-14 victory for the visitors Friday at Van Meter Stadium.
“Our kids fought hard,” Princeton head coach Chris Pedigo said. “It wasn’t pretty. You’ve got to give Woodrow a ton of credit because they played their butts off. And I thought our kids did too. We made a lot of mistakes but our kids fought to the very end and that’s a tribute to them and their willingness to try and win in any fashion. I was proud of them.”
The fashion in which the Tigers won involved a herculean effort from their defense which retuned an interception 96 yards for a touchdown and recovered a fumble on the Beckley 2.
The latter came early with Beckley controlling the momentum.
After the Flying Eagles drew first blood on a 28-yard touchdown pass from McMillen to Nate Grayton, Princeton responded by driving all the way to the Beckley 1, but a stop by the Flying Eagles on fourth down thwarted the scoring effort. At least momentarily.
The Flying Eagles fumbled the ball on the next play, with the Tigers recovering at the Beckley 2. Three plays later Princeton quarterback Grant Cochran rolled right on third down and connected with Connor Padgett to knot the game.
It stayed that way until the final minute of the third quarter when running back Brodee Rice scored from a yard out to establish Princeton’s first lead of the game – one that was threatened almost immediately.
After a sack early in the fourth quarter, McMillen found sophomore receiver Elijah Redfern down the right sideline on second-and-20 for a 41-yard gain that set the hosts up deep in Tiger territory.
Beckley’s fortunes turned immediately.
Rolling right, McMillen let a pass fly that was picked by sophomore Dominick Collins and returned 96 yards, staking Princeton to a 21-7 lead with 10:21 left in the game.
— Tyler Jackson (@TJack94) October 2, 2021
“I saw the QB roll out and saw his eyes,” Collins said. “He looked right at the receiver I was guarding so I just made a better play for the ball.”
“We came in after watching what Woodrow did last week and we knew we had to stop the double wing,” Pedigo said. “We gave up that one touchdown in the first half but I thought after that we shut it down. And that’s a tribute to our kids. We have a lot of guys playing out of position. We’ve got four-and-a-half linemen right now. We’ve got one lineman that’s injured right now that’s played his butt off, we have every one of our back ups in quarantine but you know what? Our defense played lights out tonight.
“They were running around to the football, we made plays when we had to. That was an awesome play by Dom right there on that pick six. That was the turning point of the game and I couldn’t be more proud of this team.”
The Tigers weren’t out of the clear yet.
Shifting from their double wing to their spread look, the Flying Eagles moved the ball late in a comeback effort.
With 3:05 left in the game, McMillen found Keynan Cook in the flat who then put a move on his defender to break 34 yards to the end zone, making it a 21-14 game.
“We’ve got playmakers so we just try to get the ball in their hands,” Beckley head coach Street Sarrett said. “We just try to get the ball in their hands and Keynan Cook made a great play right there on a little slip screen. The momentum right there was a changer and we almost had the onside kick which would’ve been a changer. These kids are fighters and they’re figuring it out.”
Beckley’s defense forced a punt on the next Princeton possession and advanced the ball across midfield but failed to tie the game.
“Just a few things here and there,” Sarrett said. “Turnovers, interceptions, just not blocking the right things and doing some things. But these kids fought all the way until the end and were right in it.”
Princeton, which came into the game rated as the No. 5 team in Class AAA improves to 4-0 while Beckley, which checked in at No. 16 falls to 2-3.
“We’re definitely tired,” Pedigo said. “We’re nowhere close to game shape and I think that was evident tonight. We just kept digging though. They had the momentum and I don’t think I did a good job of managing the clock there late in the fourth. Maybe I should’ve kicked, but I was worried about their length and them getting a block. But defense wins football games. Offense wins games but defense wins championships I guess. We’re nowhere near a championship but we’re going in the right direction.”