Good luck trying to wipe the smile off Tony Love’s face.
It’s there to stay, for at least the weekend, after Ashland knocked off Ironton 42-20 on Friday night at Putnam Stadium.
The Tomcats’ coach smiled not only because his standout linebacker just cracked a joke about becoming the starting running back, even though he found that humorous.
The joyful look wasn’t there because Love had just become Ashland’s first first-year head coach to beat Ironton since Jake Hallum in 1966.
And the grin also wasn’t planted from ear to ear because the Tomcats put up their largest point total in the series since ’66, the year before Love was born.
Love was simply happy with his team’s first complete performance of the season.
“This is the first time we put offense and defense together,” Love said. “It’s pretty sweet just because you see how hard these guys work.”
The win was not only historic, but sophomoric — Ashland has now beaten the Fighting Tigers three times in five years, the best mark in a five-year span since the early 1970s.
Sophomores Quinton Baker and Drew O’Bryan highlighted the effort. Baker rushed 11 times for 228 yards and four touchdowns. O’Bryan racked up a seemingly countless number of tackles and recorded his first career pick-six.
Despite the linebacker’s half-joking wishes — he said, “I’m a running back, I’m taking Quinton’s spot!” — O’Bryan probably won’t swap roles with Baker anytime soon.
While O’Bryan’s 41-yard dash to the goal line after a James Queen-deflected interception was impressive, Baker trumped him in the running department.
With Ironton leading 14-7 and Ashland backed up on its own 4-yard line, Baker took a high pitch from quarterback Hunter Prince and nearly was dropped by an ankle-tackle attempt at the goal line. He’d have none of that, though, as he high-stepped out of Ironton hands and let his feet do the rest on a 96-yard TD run.
“I just turned on the jets,” he said.
Maybe the New York Jets could use him.
Baker’s second touchdown run — a 40-yarder down the left sideline — might have been more outstanding than his first. Assisted by the blocking of Tyler Sutton, Baker burst to the sideline, and at the 20-yard line, gravity seemed to have a pull on him. He’d have none of that, either, as he hit the accelerator and found the end zone.
Ashland took a 21-14 lead into halftime after having trailed 7-0. Tristan Cox, Ironton’s quarterback, set up his own 6-yard score with a 64-yard rush on the first play of the game. Prince, Ashland’s signal-caller, answered by setting himself up with a 36-yard sprint to be followed by his 1-yard TD. Jake Long gave Ironton a 14-7 lead with a 4-yard run with 2:57 to go in the first.
After Ashland (3-2) pounded it up the gut with three fullback slam plays, Baker scampered 49 yards for yet another score.
“Quinton’s a talented kid, a real difference-maker in big ballgames like this,” said Ironton coach Mark Vass.
Ironton (2-2) was able to convert three fourth downs, two by the way of a fake punt. Cox is also the Tigers’ punter.
One fourth-down conversion helped Ironton sustain a potential scoring drive that withered away because of a dropped pass. Cox let loose a beautiful spiral that hit the receiver in stride, but he couldn’t find the handle on what may have been a TD to cut it to one possession.
Another dropped pass in the end zone occurred in the fourth quarter.
“In tight games, we can’t make mistakes like that,” Vass said. “We’re showing youth there with a lot of miscues. We still competed at least.”
Ashland’s defensive line was also a key difference. Jacob Gilbert, Dallas Brumfield and Tyler Rose were among those who came up with big stops.
O’Bryan’s interception return for a touchdown gave Ashland a 35-14 lead in the third.
“That’s a dream night, and he’s just a sophomore,” Love said. “He’s really in his infancy in learning linebacker. He made some plays that broke the game open.”
O’Bryan attributed Ashland’s steady defensive improvement to leadership.
“(Senior defensive end) Tyler Rose has stepped up and led this defense, for sure,” O’Bryan said. “He put it upon himself to make this defense match the offense.”
Ironton’s Derik Berry — on a 14-play, 61-yard Fighting Tiger drive — and Baker closed out the scoring with fourth-quarter TDs.
Baker said Ashland is clicking at the right time.
“It’s a great time to get rolling, right in crunch time,” he said.
AARON SNYDER can be reached at email@example.com or (606) 326-2664.