Tayven Jackson was ready to come back onto the field and be the hero — but he was just as happy not to have to.
Much like Tom Brady jumped up in jubilation when his New England Patriots teammate, rookie Malcolm Butler, came up with a game-saving interception at the end of Super Bowl XLIX nearly seven years ago, Jackson was ecstatic when Center Grove sophomore linebacker Owen Bright intercepted a pass at the 3-yard line with 1:37 left that sealed the Trojans’ narrow 27-21 victory over Westfield in the Class 6A state championship game on Saturday night.
Before Bright’s desperately-needed star turn, Jackson was alone on the Trojans’ sideline, getting ready to answer the call had the Shamrocks found the end zone and then kicked the go-ahead PAT. The senior quarterback would likely have had less than 90 seconds to at least drive Center Grove into field goal range. Instead, he just had to hand the ball off three times and then kneel on two more snaps to kill the remaining clock.
“I was just gaming on them scoring, and we’re scoring again,” Jackson said. “That’s what I was thinking, but obviously they didn’t score, so we just went out there and handled business on offense, get a couple of first downs and call it a night.”
It wasn’t the cakewalk that many anticipated — the game featured most of the main characters that had starred in last year’s edition, a 38-14 Trojan win that wasn’t nearly as close as the score indicated — but it still ended with the championship trophy southbound once more, destined for a well-lit position in Center Grove’s Hall of Excellence.
“(Westfield) did a great job,” Jackson said, “but ultimately, we got the W and we’re the champions, so we’re just going to leave it at that.”
Large and in charge
Coming into Saturday’s game, senior defensive end Caden Curry had gotten nine carries out of Center Grove’s “jumbo” package, rushing for 17 yards and three touchdowns. With no more games left to rest up for, Curry and his defensive linemates played a more prominent role on offense against Westfield, especially in the first half.
The Trojans ran four plays out of “jumbo” on their opening possession, converting a pair of short fourth downs and then using the extra linemen to help Tayven Jackson across the goal line for the game’s first touchdown. Curry then capped off the next Center Grove scoring drive with a 2-yard TD run.
“They just wanted to have something to get that 1 to 2 yards,” Curry said, “so I kind of just took that to heart and I just wanted to keep getting it and be successful every time I get it. I wouldn’t go down without a fight.”
Facing another fourth and 1 in the third quarter, the Trojans went back to Curry, who shook free from a crowd and rumbled for a 26-yard gain.
“We got stuck in the pile and I couldn’t go,” he said, “and then all of a sudden I feel somebody pulling me out, and I stood up, and it was James (Schott), 32, our lead blocker. He pulled me out, and then we just got that free lane out to that side.”
Curry finished the night with 36 yards on four carries on offense, adding to the five tackles and two pass breakups that the Indiana Mr. Football front-runner had on the defensive side of the ball.
On the mark
After a long incompletion on his first pass attempt, Jackson completed his next 12 throws on Saturday for a total of 152 yards.
Jackson’s favorite target was classmate Harrison Stomps, who pulled in five of those passes for 73 yards, including a 30-yard touchdown in the second quarter.
Stomps, who didn’t make a catch in last season’s 38-14 defeat of Westfield in the 6A final, enjoyed playing a far more significant role this time around. It was the ideal way to finish his career in a Trojans uniform.
“Dude, it’s crazy. I’m just so happy that we won. We had to come out and be that team coach Moore had always said,” Stomps said. “We came in and kind of knew it was going to be a good game because a state championship is almost always a good game.
“No team gets to a state championship just to roll over. Westfield played well, played hard and played until the very end.”
Sophomore receiver Noah Coy provided a glimpse of future Center Grove offenses, catching three passes for 35 yards after totaling just five receptions in the team’s first 13 games.
Center Grove appeared to get a big jolt coming out of the locker room when senior Brandon Wheat took the second-half kickoff 97 yards up the right sideline to the end zone.
However, a holding call back at the Trojans’ 30-yard line wiped out the apparent touchdown — prompting the sizable red-clad fans to voice their displeasure.
The Trojans did end up scoring on that possession, with Micah Coyle’s 5-yard run giving them a 27-14 lead at the 7:20 mark of the third period. But the penalty was one of an uncharacteristic nine penalties committed by Center Grove on the night for 67 yards.
“I didn’t know there was a flag until my brother (junior running back Drew Wheat) came up to me. He was the very last one to come up to me and said there was a flag,” Brandon Wheat said. “I don’t think it hurt us because we came down and scored a touchdown, but had there not been a flag, it would’ve changed the game.”
Brandon Wheat was injured and unable to play against the Shamrocks a year ago.
“We didn’t play our best game,” he said. “A lot of mistakes. A lot of missed opportunities. But (Westfield) is a good team.”
One big reason why Center Grove had difficulty getting much separation throughout the game was its difficulties holding onto the football. Not including a play that was officially recorded as a double change of possession after the Shamrocks fumbled and recovered in their own territory, the Trojans lost a pair of costly fumbles that led to Westfield touchdowns, including one on a punt return that gave the Shamrocks the ball at the Center Grove 19 in the third quarter.
A different vibe
One noticeable difference between last year’s state championship game and this one was the crowd. After COVID-related restrictions limited attendance to 5,479 for the Class 6A final in 2020, a healthy 21,607 showed up for the three title games on Saturday, with a visibly disproportionate share of those on hand for the nightcap.
“It was great,” Center Grove coach Eric Moore said. “The crowd was awesome. Westfield’s crowd was amazing, too. I thought both of them did a great job; I’m glad people got to come in and have a good time tonight.”