Cougars Gavin Cross (56), Evan Williams (17), Dillon Baer (57) and Gavin Ferkel (34) combine to bring down Bryan quarterback Brandon Dean during play on Friday night. The Van Wert defense stood tall versus a relentless Bryan attack, but lost an 18-14 decision. (DHI Media/Jerry Mason)
Cougars Gavin Cross (56), Evan Williams (17), Dillon Baer (57) and Gavin Ferkel (34) combine to bring down Bryan quarterback Brandon Dean during play on Friday night. The Van Wert defense stood tall versus a relentless Bryan attack, but lost an 18-14 decision. (DHI Media/Jerry Mason)
DHI Media Sports Editor
VAN WERT — A year ago, if you told the Van Wert football team that they would lose to Bryan by four points, they likely would have celebrated. As the clock ran out on the Golden Bears’ 18-14 win over the Cougars at Eggerss Stadium on Friday night, there was only disappointment, anger and frustration.
When you’re a program that has won only twice in three seasons, it might be easy to expect to lose. Van Wert came out to start the 2014 season expecting to win. And the Cougars came within 17 seconds of doing just that.
“This is a Bryan team that’s picked to win their league, was three points away from a state semi-final, and they’re celebrating like they just won the biggest game of their life,” Van Wert coach Keith Recker said proudly after the game. “That tells us that they knew we were for real, and that they respected what we had. I couldn’t ask for them to battle any more than they did.”
After a Cougar punt, Bryan took possession with 1:52 to play and one timeout left. They got the ball at their own 39; the worst field position the Bears suffered in the game’s second half.Throughout the game’s final 24 minutes, the Cougar defense had stiffened when it needed to. Bryan spent nearly the whole half in Cougar territory, threatening to take the lead.

Finally, the war of attrition became too great for the Cougars. Bryan quarterback Brandon Dean hit Nate Rau with an 18-yard pass play to get the drive rolling, then kept one himself and got the ball down the the Van Wert 40 with 1:37 to play. A 6-yard run and a pair of incomplete passes left Bryan staring at a 4th-and-4 with 1:05 to go.
Dean found Rau again, picking up enough yards to move the chains. Back-to-back running plays got the Bears down to the Van Wert three, and Dean kept the ball and dashed over left tackle for the go-ahead score.
“We played on our half of the field the whole second half and it was just stop after stop after stop,” Recker said of his defense’s effort on Friday night. “We were just 20 seconds away from it.”
It was an ominous start to the season, as the Cougars fumbled away possession on the first snap of the year. That led to Bryan’s first touchdown of the day, a Dean pass to a wide-open Rau from 20 yards out. Bryan’s 2-point conversion try failed and the Bears sported an early 6-0 lead.
Van Wert came right back, with Colin Smith directing a 75-yard drive that started with a holding call. Smith found Ryan Stoller on a rollout for a gain of 15, then hit Stoller again on a quick out for another nine yards. After a Bryan offsides call kept the drive alive on a 4th-and-1, Smith sent up top and found a streaking Nick Krugh down the seam. Krugh made the grab at the 10 and scampered in for the 38-yard touchdown. Gavin Gardner added the point-after and the Cougars held a 7-6 margin at the end of one.
With 9:04 to play in the first half, Stoller got the Cougars on the board again. Smith went to the air and Stoller reached over the Bryan defender to make a remarkable highlight-reel catch in the end zone. Gardner’s kick was good again and Van Wert was up 14-6.
The Golden Bears, regional finalists last season, showed they have the ability to awe the crowd as well. With 3:53 before the half, Dean threw over the middle to Derek Knisley, who laid out in the middle of the end zone to bring the Bears to within 14-12 at the break.
Bryan took the opening kick of the second half and faced a 4th-and-9 on their own 42. With the Cougar special teams setting up a punt return, Bryan’s Corbin Garza pulled the fake and took off up the field, gaining the first down and a Cougar penalty moved the ball inside the Van Wert 25.
Three plays later, the Cougars came up with one of many second-half stops when Chandler Adams recovered a Bryan fumble on the Cougar 19.
After a Cougar turnover gave the Bears another opportunity deep inside Van Wert territory, the defense stepped up once again. Bryan had penetrated to the 17n when Ethan Williams came free and sacked Dean for a 6-yard loss. That play forced the Golden Bears to try a field goal, but Van Wert’s Andy Hammond got his hands up and blocked the kick, preserving the skinny Cougar lead through three quarters.
Bryan drove to the Cougar 35 to open the fourth before turning it over on downs, but two plays later, recovered a Cougar fumble to get another shot. The teams exchanged punts and Bryan had it inside the 30 with under eight minutes to play when Keagan Hardmon went to the turf to intercept an overthrown Dean pass, again, turning the Golden Bears away.
Van Wert’s defense made one more stand, forcing a turnover on downs with 2:55 to play, but the Cougar offense couldn’t run out the clock, leaving enough time for the Bears’ final drive.
Smith finished 15-for-24 passing for 171 yards and two touchdowns. Krugh led the Cougars with 80 yards receiving and Stoller added six catches for 69 yards. Van Wert’s defense allowed 169 yards on the ground, but it took Bryan nearly 40 rushing attempts to get there. Bryan won the turnover battle, 3-2.