The Withrow football team faced its most adversity of the 2023 season as the Tigers prepared to host Taft in a big Cincinnati Metro Athletic Conference opener for both teams.
The Tigers had a large number of players suspended by the Ohio High School Athletic Association after an altercation with players from Trotwood-Madison during their game Sept. 15. One Withrow player was suspended for fighting, and many others were suspended one game for leaving the bench area during the incident.
Under OHSAA rules, the suspensions were staggered over the remainder of the regular season so the Tigers could field a full roster in their remaining games. The players had additional punishments from the school.
The Tigers, however, put that aside and overwhelmed Taft, 31-0, Saturday afternoon at Withrow. The Tigers got a big leg up on a second consecutive championship in the CMAC-Red Division as both teams hope to make long playoff runs in different classes.
“This was a great win,” Withrow senior quarterback Luke Dunn said. “It’s my first year here, but the rivalry is huge. It was a great win to help us win the CMAC.”
Withrow head coach Kali Jones said Friday that the suspensions are “something that we don’t tolerate. We teach them to not be reactionary to things like that. Those things are unacceptable.”
After the game, Jones focused on the on-field play against the Senators.
“Attention to detail, corrections and growth, that’s what happens in the process of developing young men,” he said. “They make mistakes, they got to get corrected and they grow from it.”
The OHSAA and Withrow didn’t specify how many players would be suspended for the Taft game, or their identities. All of the Tigers’ top skill-position players played Saturday and virtually all of their defensive statistical leaders.
Withrow’s roster lists 62 players, and between 46 and 50 players suited up against Taft.
Withrow dominated Taft defensively, limiting the Senators to 25 yards of offense in the first half. Taft drove deep into Withrow territory twice in the second half, but one drive ended in an interception and another, a long pass was called back by a penalty.
Three keys to Withrow’s win
Defense: Withrow pitched its second shutout of the season and has only allowed 37 points all year. The most the Tigers have allowed in a game is 14 in their lone loss to Division I power St. Xavier.
“It was really just perfecting what we do,” Jones said. “Flying around, playing solid football. We just wanted to perfect us. It really wasn’t about Taft. It was about Withrow controlling Withrow.”
Withrow had three sacks and a key endzone interception by Chris Payne.
“Our defense is lights out,” Dunn said. “We have so many playmakers on our defense, good defensive linemen. It’s hard for the QB to get the ball out. It’s so easy. We get the ball back in good field position.”
2. Kicking game: Withrow was much stronger on special teams, especially in the first quarter when the Tigers built an 18-0 lead. Withrow’s first drive started at the 50 following a short Taft kickoff, and Withrow's Rex Shaffer kicked a 37-yard field goal.
Withrow’s first two touchdown drives started at the Taft 12 after a blocked punt and at the Taft 23 after a short punt by the Senators. Withrow led 18-0, and the ensuing kickoff after its second touchdown was returned by Tyger Whittaker to the Withrow 41, but the play was called back by a penalty.
Meanwhile, Shaffer kicked off to the endzone for touchbacks on the Tigers’ first two kicks and added a third kickoff later in the first quarter. A short punt by Taft set up Withrow’s final touchdown in the fourth quarter. The Tigers had a big advantage in field position for most of the game.
3. Penalties: Every time the Senators made a long gain in the first half, it was called back by a penalty, keeping the Senators from gaining momentum and making a comeback.
Trailing 3-0, Taft punted and Withrow returned it to the Taft 40. The teams had offsetting penalties and the Senators had to punt again. Dimico Harrison blocked this one for Withrow, and the Tigers took over at the Senators' 12. They quickly scored a TD after that, and a two-point run put Withrow up to stay at 11-0.
Play of the game
Luke Dunn threw a 19-yard TD pass to Chris Payne in the first quarter, with Shaffer’s PAT giving Withrow an 18-0 lead. Dunn threw a tight spiral to Payne, who was near the sideline with two defenders near him. Payne caught the ball amidst the congested traffic, the Taft defenders ended up behind him, and Payne went untouched into the endzone.
Players of the game
Luke Dunn, Withrow: He threw for over 100 yards in the first half and ended the game with three touchdown passes and one rushing score.
Chris Henry, Jr., Withrow: The sophomore Ohio State commit caught two touchdown passes and had his most productive game in a Withrow uniform. Dunn is pleased with the growing chemistry between him and his star receiver.
“Chris played an absolutely great game,” Dunn said. “The receivers blocked amazing. It all just fell into place. His big frame, he goes and gets it every time.”
Chris Payne, Withrow: The senior defensive back had a touchdown catch and intercepted a pass in the endzone to stop Taft’s best scoring threat of the afternoon.
Jay’Quan Bostic, Taft: In a quiet and rough day for the Senators on both sides of the ball, he caught a 40-yard pass from Armoud Seals to the Withrow 5, one play before Payne’s interception.
Both teams continue CMAC play as Taft hosts Hughes at 6:30 p.m. Friday at Stargel Stadium. Hughes (1-5) lost 44-28 to Western Hills Friday, as Mustangs standout Izayah Camp had another mammoth rushing game with 384 yards and four touchdowns.
Withrow hosts Woodward (1-5), which is a 3 p.m. Saturday afternoon special. Woodward fell 14-8 to Aiken Friday.
Withrow 31, Taft 0
Taft 0 0 0 0-0
Withrow 18 7 0 6-31
W – Shaffer 37 field goal
W – Dunn 2 run (Bonner run)
W – Payne 19 pass from Dunn (Shaffer kick)
W – Henry Jr. 18 pass from Dunn (Shaffer kick)
W – Henry Jr. 33 pass from Dunn (pass failed)
Records: T 4-2 (0-1 CMAC-Red), W 5-1 (1-0)
This article originally appeared on Cincinnati Enquirer: Ohio high school football: Cincinnati Withrow rolls over Taft 31-0