Warren Harding's senior tailback rushed for 123 yards in a 21-13 win over Austintown Fitch.
By CHUCK HOUSTEAU
AUSTINTOWN -- Warren Harding coach Thom McDaniels had hoped to keep star running back Maurice Clarett on the sidelines during the Raiders game against Austintown Fitch.
But when the Falcons tied Friday's contest at 7-7 in the third quarter, McDaniels had no choice but to insert Clarett, who was nursing a groin injury.
The 6-0 senior helped the Raiders (6-0) turn back a serious threat by the Falcons (1-5) and escape with a 21-13 victory at Austintown.
After playing the Associated Press' number-one-ranked Division I team in the state toe to toe, the Falcons had a chance to pull off the upset.
But Harding defender Mike Phillips intercepted Falcons quarterback Steve Burnich's pass at the Raider 22-yard line with 1:09 remaining to preserve the victory.
Good effort: "We're capable of being a real good football team and we proved it tonight," Fitch coach Carl Pelini said. "The difference was we came out tentative, but you could see it as the game went on.
"We got more aggressive, more physical, started making plays and then suddenly we are in the game with the number-one team in the state."
The Raiders also are ranked third in Div. I Region 1 of the computer playoff ratings.
Early in the fourth period, Clarett raced 34 yards on a fourth and 1 play, and Mike Hanck added the extra point to give Warren an eight-point cushion with 6:50 remaining.
Clarett finished with 123 yards rushing in 15 carries.
McDaniels said that the situation his team faced at 7-7 in the third quarter, called for Clarett to play.
Banged up: "Maurice got injured last week, practiced lightly this week, but we had not intended to use him," McDaniels said. "The situation at that point in the game called for him to play.
"He was bugging me to play in the first half," McDaniels said. "He never actually said [anything] to me until halftime, but he was never more than two inches away from me."
Clarett said he was anxious to play because he felt like he could make a difference.
"I kept thinking, 'come on coach put me in,' " Clarett said. "The game wasn't going our way and I know I'm a difference maker."
But even with Clarett in the game, the Falcons seemed to play even tougher.
Keeps it close: Although Warren scored during Clarett's first series in the game, which put the Raiders ahead 14-7, the Falcons came right back.
Keyed by the passing combination of Burnich to Dajwan Stubbs, Fitch answered the Warren scoring drive with one of their own.
Burnich connected with Stubbs on pass plays covering 11 and 28 yards during the drive before Ray Betts scored on a 2 yard run.
Warren's Travis Stanford blocked the extra-point attempt to preserve a 14-13 lead.
"Fitch football is back," Pelini said. "It's just that those kids took six games to realize that."
The Falcons played especially well in the first half.
Fitch employed a no-huddle offense and operated out of a shotgun attack.
Fitch had a chance to tie the game at 7-7 right before halftime but Burnich was intercepted in the endzone by Phillips with 1:38 remaining until the break.
Burnich had a good night passing the football.
He completed 13 of 24 passes for 193 yards. Stubbs caught 7 passes for 134 yards.
McDaniels said he wasn't surprised by the Falcons effort but was disappointed with his defense.
"Maurice Clarett doesn't play defense and we think we are a pretty good defensive football team," McDaniels said. "But Fitch pushed us a around and I won't know why until we look at the films."