HUDSON — It has been a tough season for two of the premier football programs in Summit County the past few years.
Hudson is just two years removed from its third straight final-four appearance and had seven playoff trips in a row.
Stow-Munroe Falls had a three-year streak of postseason play coming into the 2018 season, including a deep run in 2015.
Heading into week eight’s matchup Friday at Hudson Memorial Stadium, both teams had losing records.
On a night that featured plenty of fireworks, both on and off the field, Stow rallied to defeat Hudson 27-23. Both teams are now 3-5 overall and 3-2 in the Suburban League National Conference.
The win was the Bulldogs’ first at Hudson since 2000 when they earned a 13-7 victory at Dante Lavelli Field.
Since that loss to Stow, the Explorers had won eight straight at home against their archrivals, including a 3-0 mark at Memorial Stadium, which opened in 2012. Hudson had won 13 of its last 14 against the Bulldogs from 2001 to 2014.
"With Stow we had a streak for like seven or eight years in a row," Explorers’ head coach Jeff Gough said. "Coach Mark Nori (now at Olentangy Berlin) kind of turned that around and they have gotten three of the last four.
"They have swung it back. It’s definitely a huge rivalry. Neither of us have great records right now, but that was great football out there. That felt like a playoff game. It’s awesome. Two 3-5 teams playing football like that."
The Bulldogs rallied from a nine-point deficit late in the third quarter by scoring two touchdowns just 13 seconds apart early in the fourth quarter.
Stow took advantage of two Hudson turnovers to steal the win.
With 20-seconds left in the third and up 23-14, Hudson faced a third-and-15 situation from its own 20-yard line.
An errant pass was picked off by Stow safety Brian Cartwright. The senior captain raced back 31 yards before being stopped at the Explorers’ 1.
Two plays later and just three seconds into the fourth quarter, wildcat quarterback Bryce Sheppert powered in for the touchdown, closing the gap to 23-21.
On the ensuing squib kick, Hudson misplayed the ball and Stow recovered at the Explorers’ 26. On the very next play, just 13 seconds after his third touchdown of the game, Sheppert raced around the left end, going the distance for a 27-23 lead with 11 minutes, 44 seconds to play. That score would hold up, thanks to the Bulldogs’ defense.
Sheppert came into the game on Stow’s third possession, subbing for starter Josh Andrassy. The switch worked as Hudson struggled to stop the quarterback keepers. Sheppert never put the ball in the air, running 23 times for 142 yards and all four Bulldog touchdowns.
"Number 13 (Sheppert) is an incredible athlete," Gough said. "They went wildcat and he made some outstanding plays. I have to give him and their coaching staff a lot of credit. They found what worked and stuck with it."
In all, Stow used three quarterbacks on this night. Andrassy started with Sheppert coming in for a change of pace and then freshman Owen Bainbridge was added to the mix that kept Hudson guessing. Bainbridge was 7 of 13 for 68 yards.
"We have been going with two (quarterbacks Andrassy and Sheppert)," first-year Bulldogs head coach Tom Phillips said. "It just wasn’t Josh’s game. We still have faith in him. We felt it was time for a change and Owen did a great job.
"Bryce gives us that explosive punch. We have been using him for the past five weeks, maybe. I credit the offensive line. They made a huge difference."
The game started out the Explorers’ way, on a dry field, after each team went three and out on their first possessions.
Stow’s first punt was high and short, hitting an Explorer blocking downfield. The ball took a huge bounce in Hudson’s favor and after a scramble, Hudson had the ball just 26 yards from the end zone. It was just the first of two short punts that hit downfield blockers. The second did not go the Explorers’ way and was costly.
Hudson capitalized quickly after the break on special teams. Quarterback Liam Brennan hit Luke McLaughlin in the left flats and the wide receiver did the rest. The sophomore sidestepped a would-be tackler and raced into the end zone for the game’s first touchdown. The first of three Jake Vidmar extra-point kicks had Hudson on top 7-0 with 8:28 left in the first quarter. McLaughlin finished with four catches for 133 yards and two scores.
The two teams exchanged punts again before Sheppert got his first action in the wildcat. Andrassy also took snaps in the 10-play, 60-yard drive. Sheppert capped the marc. breaking a keeper up the middle to go in standing from 14 yards out. Chris Miller’s kick knotted the score at 7-7 with 1:47 left in the first.
With the two defenses dominating play, that score remained 7-7 until later in the first half following a just missed 36-yard field goal attempt by Vidmar.
The Explorers got the ball when Quinten Howell recorded a strip sack on the next play. The senior knocked the ball loose as Andrassy tried to scramble out of the pocket. The game’s first turnover had Hudson just 17 yards from the lead.
"I told them at halftime I am so proud of them," said Gough, who also is the defensive coordinator. "With all of the great defensive ends, defenses and linebackers we have had, we really haven’t had a strip sack in years and years. We got two in back-to-back possessions and covered the second. That was a great defensive play call."
Brennan, who completed 14 of 24 passes for 218 yards and two scores, hit a diving Brandon Lal on the first play after the recovery by Howell to set a first and goal from the 1. Two plays later. Brady Ludewig powered in from the wildcat for a 14-7 lead with 2:50 left in the half.
With the rain beginning to fall, Hudson’s defense forced another three and out, but with 1:32 to play in the half, the game turned on another high Paulo Gill punt. The ball again hit an Explorer player with Stow falling on the loose ball.
The Bulldogs took advantage with Bainbridge leading the 48-yard scoring drive. The freshman completed two big third-down passes to Cartwright for 20 yards and running back Jack Bryden for five yards to the Hudson 1.
Sheppert moved back to take the snap for the final play and he found the end zone from a yard away with 17 seconds left. That tied the game at 14.
"This was a game of momentum, but we handled it pretty well," Gough said.
A quick three-and-out turned disastrous for the Bulldogs from their own 42. The snap sailed high over Gill’s head and bounced forever until Gill caught up with it at the goal line. With Hudson in hot pursuit, the senior alertly kicked the bouncing pigskin through the back of the end zone for a safety and a 16-14 Hudson lead.
After another exchange of punts, the Explorers got the ball at their own 5. With the running game shut down all night (just 13 yards on 26 rushing attempts), Hudson went to the air three plays into the possession.
On third down, McLaughlin turned a simple sideline pattern, in front of the Hudson bench, into a big gain. The speedster raced down the left sideline for 44 yards.
On the next play Brennan hit sophomore Jacob Paltani for eight yards and then went back to McLaughlin for the bomb along the left sideline for a 37-yard touchdown and a 23-14 lead with 2:53 left in the third quarter.
On the Explorers’ next touch, the game turned again with the pick and subsequent muffed kickoff recovery. Momentum was back with the Bulldogs and they would hold on to it with their defense and Sheppert’s running late to seal it.
Hudson’s last-ditch drive reached its 44 before back-to-back sacks by Stow captain Adrian Woliver.
Faced with a fourth and 21, the Explorers punted with 2:10 left and Sheppert sealed the win with a first down.
Hudson is scheduled to entertain National Conference rival Twinsburg this Friday at 7 p.m.