In recent years, Russell has fallen victim to such Ironton big-play performers as Tres Wilks and Patrick Lewis.
Friday night, it was Tristan Cox’s turn.
The Fighting Tigers’ junior quarterback/defensive back ran for two touchdowns, threw for another and returned an interception 60 yards for the game-changing score in a 35-14 victory at Tanks Memorial Stadium.
“He’s a good athlete and hurt us in a lot of ways,” Russell coach Ivan McGlone said.
Russell turned one big mistake by Cox into a touchdown that allowed the Red Devils to pull even midway through the third quarter.
Cox, in the grasp of a Russell defender, floated a pass down the middle that Jason McKnight picked off and returned 76 yards to Ironton’s 1. Freshman running back Nick Conley scored on the next play, then carried the ball in for a two-pointer to make it 14-14.
After Ironton went three-and-out, Russell picked up a first down at its own 45. But on the next play, an overthrown pass landed in the hands of Cox, who weaved his way to the end zone for the tie-breaking score with 2:51 remaining in the third quarter.
“We may have panicked a little bit after that, I don’t know,” McGlone said.
The Fighting Tigers tacked on two touchdowns in the final five-and-half minutes, beginning with a Cox sneak from 1 yard out.
“He’s a weapon. He needs to be,” Ironton coach Mark Vass said of Cox, who finished with 139 yards on 13 carries and also connected with Lucas Campbell for a 48-yard TD. “Tristan is going to be the wild card. He’s going to make mistakes, but he can make plays. I’m happy to see him bounce back. He didn’t play well in the first game, but it was everybody.”
Ironton dropped its home opener 49-12 to highly regarded Wheelersburg. Early turnovers helped turn it into a rout by halftime.
The Fighting Tigers, like Russell loaded with new starters this season, bounced back with a solid performance to extend their winning streak against the Red Devils to 16 games.
“We could have hung our heads after last week,” Vass said. “I thought we responded.”
Along with Cox, Ironton’s defense made all the difference. Russell managed only four first downs and 74 yards offense, including negative 10 yards in the second half.
“Overall, the defense had a great night,” Vass said. “Defense probably won the game. We controlled the line of scrimmage for the most part.”
Russell, trailing 21-14, had an opportunity to climb back in the game after Austin Potter recovered an Ironton fumble at the Fighting Tigers’ 23 late in the third quarter.
However, Ironton made three consecutive tackles behind the line of scrimmage, including two sacks of sophomore quarterback Jacob McKee. On fourth down, punter Joe VanDeren dropped the snap and Joe Bowling dropped him at Russell’s 47.
Ironton used 11 consecutive running plays to punch the ball in for a two-touchdown advantage.
Running backs Jeremy Bodner, Desmond Young, Tanner Price and Derik Berry combined for 161 yards rushing to complement Cox.
“They are typical,” McGlone said of Fighting Tigers. “I think they just ran into a buzzsaw last week. They turned the ball over four or five times in the first half of that game. Do that against a team like Wheelersburg and you’re going to run into big problems.”
Ironton took a 14-0 lead in the first half. Cox hit a wide-open Campbell in the middle of the field on a play-action pass, then the elusive quarterback bolted 68 yards for a TD from shotgun formation.
Russell’s biggest plays came on returns.
Ethan Thompson’s 48-yard punt return set up a 9-yard scoring run for Conley with 58 seconds left in the half. McKnight’s long interception return led to the Red Devils’ other score.
Prior to the game, Vass presented McGlone with a plaque at midfield on behalf of Ironton’s fans, coaches, administration and booster club saluting the Russell coach’s long coaching and teaching career.
ROCKY STANLEY can be reached at email@example.com or (606) 326-2671.