Thrilling comeback victories have become a way of life for Martins Ferry this fall.
The Purple Riders, however, needed one for the ages Saturday night to remain alive in the OHSAA second season at the Dave Bruney Football Complex.
The battle-tested Riders found themselves down by two scores heading into the fourth quarter against upstart Williamsport Westfall, but once again displayed the composure and resiliency to notch their 10th win in 11 starts by a 30-28 margin.
Martins Ferry's Marcus Sutton picks up yardage behind Mark Douglas.
Martins Ferry, which was forced to rally in their final three regular-season games, will now travel to Hamilton Township Saturday to take on third-seeded Wheelersburg. Game time is 7 p.m.
The survivor advances to the regional final against the winner of the Bishop Hartley-Baltimore Liberty Union matchup.
Senior quarterback Bryan Styles stepped into the role of catalyst during the final 12 minutes for the Purple, engineering three do-or-die touchdown drives.
Down 21-12, Styles broke free on a 38-yard scoring jaunt to make it a 21-18 reading.
Westfall, however, made the comeback more difficult via a 33-yard touchdown connection from stellar quarterback Cole Hardin to Taylor Salmons with 9:48 to play. Tommy Staten's PAT made it a 28-18 Mustang advantage.
Martins Ferry responded in OVAC championship fashion.
The Purple Riders embarked on a marathon 14-play, 77-yard scoring march. Styles found paydirt again from five yards out. Matt Barber booted the PAT, cutting the deficit to 28-24.
The Purple Riders' defense delivered a crucial three-and-out, enabling the hosts to take over at their own 45 with 4:34 to play.
Five rushes by Styles, another by junior ace Bryce Coleman and an offside penalty moved the Purple Riders to the Westfall 11 with less than two minutes remaining.
Two totes by Jahod Joyce advanced the ball to the three. Hard-running junior Bruce Burger delivered the game-winner from three yards out with exactly one minute left on the clock for a 30-28 lead. The conversion run failed.
Westfall had one final chance.
The Mustangs moved to the Purple Riders' 40 but their hopes ended when Hardin was sacked by an onslaught of Ferry pass rushers.
"It was a great effort from a lot of guys. We beat a very good football team," said an elated Dave Bruney. "Westfall played really well. They came into the game on a roll. We knew they would be tough to handle.
"Our kids have been down before. They displayed composure once again in the fourth quarter," he added. "These kids refuse to lose."
Styles enjoyed a huge night. He rushed 18 times for 154 yards and two TDs. He also completed 7-of-14 passes for 53 yards.
"Martins Ferry has a tremendous team and No. 5 (Styles) made some big plays in the fourth quarter," said Westfall coach Brian Spicer, a West Point grad. "But I am very proud of my team. I have never coached a team that improved so much from the beginning of the season till the final game.
"We started off somewhat sluggish this year, but once the kids bought into a new coach things began to fall into place," he added. "Our kids played their hearts out tonight. We lost to a very good football team."
Martins Ferry again unleashed a pounding ground attack, amassing 315 infantry stripes as no less than seven different Riders toted the leather. Joyce supported Styles with 64 stripes on 13 attempts.
Ferry drew first blood thanks to a nifty 24-yard run by senior ace Marcus Sutton.
Westfall bounced back to grab a 13-6 lead until late in the first half when Coleman raced 16 untouched yards with 1:18 left in the first half. The conversion run failed, leaving the Riders down 13-12 at intermission.
"We made a lot of mistakes tonight. We have to clean up our penalties (120 yards)," Bruney said. "But reaching 10 wins is a notable achievement.
"I don't know much about Wheelersburg," he added. "But we relish the fact we will still be practicing for at least another week."
Senior force Robert Vargo led the Purple Riders' defense with 10 tackles. Luke Straub, Burger and Hondo Palmer recorded seven stops each.
Junior dandy Jake Barritt hauled in nine passes for the Ferrians.
Promising sophomore quarterback James Edwards sparkled when he came in for a short time after Styles was dinged up. Edwards completed both passes he attempted.
The Riders also lost 1,000-yard rusher Arjay Burress for extended time due to injury. Joyce ably filled in.
Westfall experienced what proved to-be-a-costly missed scoring opportunity on its first possession of the night.
The Mustangs marched from their 31 to the Purple Riders' 18, where the drive stalled. A 35-yard field goal attempt was long enough but bounced back harmlessly off the right upright.
"Going into the season, we knew we had a chance to have a good season, but we were a junior-dominated team," Bruney said. "Those juniors have grown up, but our seniors also deserve a great deal of credit.
"These kids have risen to the challenge time and time again," he added. "We will need to do it again against Wheelersburg."
Kapral may be reached at bkapral@timesleader online.com