ashland defense
Ashland’s Isaac Stewart (2), Jayden Goings (11), Gavin Hoffman (22) and Josh Pancake (34) close in on Marion Harding’s Josiah Gooden on Friday at Ashland Community Stadium. (photo by Doug Haidet)

ASHLAND — While the game might have been scoreless at halftime Friday inside Community Stadium, Marion Harding head coach Chuck Williamson said his football team probably lost it in the second quarter.

In a matchup of pesky defenses and limited big plays on offense, the Arrows stepped up and slipped away with a 14-6 victory to improve to 2-0.

Ashland didn’t have a play go for more than 20 yards all night, but when the Presidents (0-2) had their best chance to strike — with second-quarter drives starting on the AHS 46-, 37- and 32-yard lines — it was the Arrow defense answering the call each time.

“(Not capitalizing on field position) is where we lost it,” Williamson said. “We had the ball (to start a drive) inside midfield I think four or five times in the first half and came away with zero points. Against a good football team you can’t do that.”

On those key first-half stops, Ashland got an interception from Gunner Lacey, a sack from Cooper Smith and a tackle for loss from Gavin Hoffman — all on third-down plays.

“I know that our offense can do great things,” said Smith, who also recovered a fourth-quarter fumble. “We’ve just got to keep playing well on (defense) and keep giving them opportunities to score.”

Marion Harding never started a drive beyond its own 20-yard line in the second half. By the time the visitors scored their lone points on a 4-yard touchdown run from quarterback Alex Stokes (12 of 37 for 134 yards), there was just 1:08 left to play.

The Presidents’ ensuing try for a squib kick bounced out of bounds and Ashland escaped on a night when it managed just 137 yards of total offense.

“It’s a team game for a reason, and each night you don’t know who’s going to carry you,” Arrows head coach Scott Valentine said. “Tonight, definitely the defense carried us.”

It was an absolute slog for the Ashland offense and quarterback Nathan Bernhard, who finished just 7-of-24 passing for 45 yards. The sophomore threw a red zone interception to Marquis Long in the third quarter and nearly lost a fumble on a big hit in his own end zone in the first, but the play was negated by a Presidents facemask penalty.

Bernhard did find Michael Franz for his third receiving touchdown in two games — a leaping, 20-yard grab in the right corner of the end zone on Ashland’s opening drive of the second half. But the quarterback was on the run most of the night.

“You’ve got to give it to (Marion Harding’s defensive backs),” said Bernhard, who credited Franz with the great catch on what he said was his best throw of the night. “They were athletic, they didn’t give us much (separation) all game.”

Bernhard also lauded Cayden Spotts for his pass blocking in the second half. The senior running back finished a hard-nosed game with 73 yards on 18 carries and ran in a 2-yard score midway through the fourth quarter.

The Presidents, meanwhile, got a quarter of their yardage for the entire game on one play late in the fourth when Stokes hit Keonte Scott (five catches, 102 yards) down the left sideline for a 55-yard gain to set up their touchdown. Harding didn’t have another play go for more than 19 yards and Ashland’s defense nearly had three interceptions in the first 10 minutes of the third quarter inside Marion Harding territory.

“We just rallied our guys together and said, ‘Hey, we’re going to have to get the job done because the (offense) is not doing it right now,” said safety Tyler Sauder, who had a key punt return and fourth-down pass breakup in the game. “And the offense later on found a way to get in the end zone and just helped us out there.”

Bernhard and Stokes combined to go just 7-of-29 passing in the first half for 6 yards, one week after the pair nearly threw for 300 yards apiece.

Ashland kicker Carson O’Brien missed a 27-yard field goal in the first half, but connected on a pair of PAT kicks.

With the win, the Arrows were able to keep possession of the Erie Bell, a traveling trophy between AHS and Marion Harding.

“Ashland’s a very good football team; that might be the best team we see all year,” Williamson said. “Defensively, we played lights-out; I thought we played tremendous. The offense just put us in too many bad spots that we couldn’t overcome.”

Friday marked the first time Ashland has had back-to-back, one-possession wins since Weeks 1 and 2 of 2018, when Valentine was last head coach of the Arrows.

They will hope to use that momentum going forward, as four of their next five games are on the road, including next week at Buckeye Valley (0-2).

Doug Haidet is a 17-year resident of Ashland. He wrote sports in some capacity for the Ashland Times-Gazette from 2006 to 2018. He lives with his wife, Christy, and son, Murphy.