Matt Berner's glossy passing statistics weren't lost on Shawnee Mission West.
In leading Free State High's football team to back-to-back victories to start the season, Berner had completed 60 percent of his passes and thrown for five touchdowns.
But in the Firebirds' nail-biting 12-7 win against the Vikings last Friday night in Overland Park, Berner completed just 11 of 25 passes. He did throw for both touchdowns, but he also was intercepted twice and was sacked five times.
"It felt like a hundred," said Berner who was hounded all night by the Vikings' rush.
"That's the first time all year we've had problems with pass protection," Free State coach Bob Lisher said.
At the same time, SM West's secondary broke up several passes in addition to the two thefts.
"They disguised their coverage pretty good," Lisher said, "and prevented Matt from making proper reads."
Meanwhile, running backs David Allen and Cole Douglas combined for a pedestrian 77 yards, although Joe Aber came off the bench and provided a spark with 33 yards in five fourth-quarter carries.
Overlooked because of the Firebirds' offensive struggles was a defense that bent, but seemed to come up with a big play when needed, particularly in the first half when the Vikings ran twice as many plays (38) as the Firebirds (19).
SM West, playing in front of a sizable homecoming crowd, clearly had the motivational edge.
"Coach told us to beware," Berner said. "He said they didn't want to go 0-3, but I don't think we were ready."
Nevertheless, SM West failed to take advantage of its first-half dominance and settled for a precarious 7-6 halftime advantage, and the Firebirds, despite blowing numerous chances, finally pulled it out on Berner's eight-yard TD pass to tight end Matt Lane with only 37 ticks remaining.
While the offense continued to struggle in the second half, the defense settled down, holding the Vikes to 55 yards and no points in the last 24 minutes. SM West's lone scoring opportunity was a 44-yard field goal attempt by Matt Frankel, but it was blocked by senior cornerback Stanley Redwine.
Bijai Jones, who led the Firebirds with four receptions for 59 yards and a touchdown, also contributed a key defensive play when he intercepted a pass while playing free safety in the fourth quarter.
"When you blow as many opportunities as we did, it's hard to win," Lisher said, "but good teams will find a way."
Free State, already off to the fastest start in the school's six-year history, will entertain Olathe East at 7 p.m. Friday at KU's Memorial Stadium.
Starting senior linebacker Nick McGovern should resume practicing this week after irritating an old fracture in his left ankle on Sept. 12 against Olathe South. McGovern missed the SM West game.
Tailback-defensive back David Allen wasn't at full speed last Friday. While running onto the field, Allen sprained an ankle when he stepped on a sprinkler. He's expected to be OK this week.
Lisher on winning ugly, rather than looking good and losing: "We've had more than our share of those losses in recent history."
Prep coordinator Mike Miller contributed some information for this story.