MARION — The East Knox Bulldogs’ defense made the big plays when it counted. Down 20-0, halfway through the third quarter, the Bulldogs’ defense got three big stops on defense and scored three touchdowns to nip the Seneca East Tigers, 21-20, in Friday’s OHSAA region 22 semifinal playoff at Harding in Marion on Friday.

“We talked at halftime and I said, ‘Hey guys we’re only down by 12 at the half,” said East Knox coach Cody Reese. “We have plenty of time. We’re right in this thing. We got momentum in the second half and carried that confidence. That was the difference.”

The Tigers had a two touchdown lead on a pair of short yardage scoring runs by Skyler Walker (23 carries, 125 yards). They might have had more, but they fumbled the ball away twice in the first half while deep in Bulldogs territory. The Tigers lost the ball a third time, late in the first half, giving the Bulldogs the ball at the Tigers’ 35. They were, however, unable to capitalize. Seneca lost the ball four times on five fumbles.

“That was the goal last week,” East Knox linebacker Dawson David said. “Coach told us, ‘As many turnovers as you can get, create them.’ We didn’t capitalize in the first half, but in the second half, we turned it around and we started scoring.”

The Tigers opened the second half with a five minute and four second drive, covering 66 yards. Kane Lynch ran it into endzone for the Tigers, putting them on top, 20-0. It was a different Bulldogs’ team that got the ball back with 6:56 to go in the third quarter. Suddenly, East Knox was able to move the ball, seemingly at will. Caleb Gallwitz (23 carries for 125 yards) turned it on the second half, gaining 72 yards on 15 carries in the final two quarters. The Bulldogs finally scored with a little over five minutes to go in the third quarter on a 5-yard run by Caleb Gallwitz.

Fifteen seconds later, the Bulldogs got the biggest break of the game — a fumble by Seneca quarterback Chase Foos. East Knox defensive back Shane Knepp recovered the ball, while the Tigers committed a facemask penalty, giving the Bulldogs first and 10 at the Tigers’ 16-yard line. A few plays later, Braden Kannady caught a 7-yard touchdown pass from Kadden Lester for a touchdown, shrinking the Tigers’ lead to 20-14.

“We kind of settled down a little bit,” Lester said, “I got my confidence under me and we have a great offensive line. It was a team effort from the beginning.”

Lester was 5-for-15 passing in the first half. In the second half, he was 6-for-6 for 65 yards.

“We play with a lot of heart,” David said. “We showed heart. We never gave up. We kept grinding and we pulled through at the end.”

The Tigers — a team that was used to getting seven or eight yards per carry – were stopped three times in the second half. Seneca drove the ball to the East Knox 32-yard line, where their drive sputtered. Once again the Bulldogs drove the ball downfield on a 68-yard drive, highlighted by a Weston Melick 25-yard run and a 2-yard touchdown run by Gallwitz for the go ahead score.

“They (the Tigers) are a very physical team and a well-coached team,” Gallwitz said. “It was an absolute ball game the entire time. They played super hard and super aggressive.”

Next week, the Bulldogs will go up against Carey, which defeated Hillsdale 7-0 in the other Region 22 playoff game. The location of the game has yet to be announced.

“I don’t want to be done,” David said. “This team and my fellow seniors don’t want to be done. We want to keep going.”

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Geoff Cowles: 740-397-5333 or and on Twitter, @