HARRISBURG — Justin Townsend and the Fairfield Mules (5-0) added another trophy to their mantle with a 23-13 victory over Harrisburg (2-3) at Taylor Field on Friday.
Originally scheduled to play Vienna-Goreville, the Mules ventured out of the Black Diamond Conference after the Eagles were forced to cancel with low roster numbers. Coming off a huge comeback victory against Herrin last week, the Bulldogs presented a challenge for Townsend’s club after Du Quoin canceled their game against Harrisburg due to a positive COVID-19 case on the Indians' team.
What transpired after that was both Townsend and Harrisburg coach Gabe Angelly setting up the game late Wednesday night. While Angelly noted his late Wednesday night of studying Fairfield’s game tape for 3-4 hours, an emotional Townsend called it a "roller coaster" of events and a huge win for his program.
“It’s been a roller coaster fighting every week to get football games for our kids and making sure that we can play,” Townsend said. “The Black Diamond gets a bad rap sometimes, and we get an opportunity to step out and play a really good Harrisburg team out of the River-to-River. We just felt like this was an opportunity for us to come out and prove ourselves and I’m extremely proud of the way our kids responded.”
Fairfield jumped out to a 23-0 halftime lead highlighted by two second quarter rushing touchdowns from senior halfback Kaleb Wells. Senior quarterback Landon Zurliene put the Mules on the board first with a 36-yard passing touchdown to junior wide receiver Camben Robbins at the 3:29 mark of the first quarter, while Harrisburg’s offense struggled to get anything going behind senior fullback Lester Bryant.
It was a battle in the trenches as Fairfield out-rushed Harrisburg in attempts (37-33) and yards (183-85). The Mules had the advantage up front with senior tackle A.J. Gonzalez (6-8, 370 pounds) and junior tackle Logan Kreiter (6-9, 350 pounds). Kreiter created holes for Wells, who benefited the team in the second quarter with a two-yard rushing score that moved Fairfield ahead 13-0 after senior Aaron Perez converted the extra point with 5:46 remaining.
Wells broke free for a 28-yard rushing touchdown with 4:05 on the clock after Perez’s extra point gave Fairfield a 20-0 lead. After a quick three-and-out was forced by Fairfield’s defense, the Mules took over at the Harrisburg 44-yard line and benefited from a Bulldogs' 15-yard punting penalty.
Perez missed his first extra point opportunity on Robbins’ first quarter touchdown, but made up for it with a 38-yard field goal just before halftime. That gave the Mules a commanding 23-point lead with nine seconds left for Harrisburg’s offense to do nothing with but run Lester for three yards before going into the locker rooms.
Gonzalez is committed to play tackle at Lindenwood University following graduation. The Fairfield lineman spoke on preparing for Harrisburg with such short notice.
“It was kind of a shock that we had to completely change what we had been going over all week,” Gonzalez said. “(Harrisburg’s) defensive line is made up of some really tough kids, so coming up here knowing they’re in a different conference just hyped everyone up to come out and play their best game.”
Angelly noted his team has played much better in the second half than in the first half this season. That trend continued in the fourth quarter when the Bulldogs scored their first points on an 8-yard touchdown pass from junior quarterback Ben Gulley to senior wide receiver Jake Hefner.
After sophomore Ross Rider converted Harrisburg’s extra point to make the score 23-7, the Bulldogs defense forced a Robbins fumble on Fairfield’s next possession to set Rider up for a three-yard rushing touchdown with 5:42 remaining to put the score at 23-13. The Bulldogs attempted a pair of two-point conversions to try and make it a one score game, but after failing both attempts, Fairfield’s offense took over to run the clock out.
“Last year we had troubles with getting down early and then it became 40 to nothing instead of 23-13,” Angelly said. “This group battles hard. Obviously, the team we see in the second half is the team we expect to see in the first half. If they'd had an entire summer to prep and be ready, I’d really like to see the team this could be.”
Fairfield prepares for a home conference matchup against Eldorado next week, while Harrisburg travels to play SIRR Ohio rival West Frankfort.