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Archive for Saturday, October 21, 2006

Tittrington: One run cost LHS the most

October 21, 2006

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Football coaches are loathe to look at one play in a body of work and point to it as the deciding factor in the final outcome of a game.

And it almost seems silly to point to Friday night's lopsided score - Free State 49, Lawrence High 15 - and proclaim one snap from scrimmage in the second quarter left the biggest impact on what transpired at Haskell Stadium.

However, one play - a fourth-and-one for the LHS offense deep in Free State territory with five minutes remaining before halftime - paints a vivid picture of the 180-degree spin that has taken place for the two city programs during the 2006 season.

Lawrence High has a long and distinguished history built on running the football. If you're a betting man and you're looking for any one high school team in the state to pick up one measly yard, you'd be smart to take the odds and count on the ground-loving Lions to make it happen.

"Exactly. We expect to get it. That's what we do," LHS coach Dirk Wedd said following Friday's setback.

However, while the Lions continue to enjoy their usual complement of talented ballcarriers - tailback Tony Williams is closing in on 1,000 yards, and fullbacks Tyler Hunt and Clifton Sims have shown their own flashes of punishing brilliance - an injury-ravaged offensive line has taken away some of the backfield's bite.

The result is an atypical LHS squad unable to grind out one more hashmark when the Lions needed it most against their crosstown rivals.

When Williams took a handoff at the Firebirds' 12-yard line, his team trailing, 14-9, he didn't find the 36 inches he needed to keep alive the Lions' march for what would have been a go-ahead touchdown and huge doses of adrenaline and momentum.

Instead, he found Free State defensive tackle Mikel Ruder and linebackers Bobby Burnham, Andy Petz and Jimmy Bruce. And once Williams scrambled back to his feet and dusted himself off, he and the LHS offense still found themselves three feet shy of their goal.

"It was huge - the biggest play of the game in my eyes," said Ruder, the 6-foot-4, 255-pound space-eater who anchors Free State's massive defensive line and has attracted the attention of numerous NCAA Division I programs. "Our biggest rival, a game we look forward to all year : stuffing them is huge. It's probably the biggest confidence boost you can have."

In that one instant, Free State not only slammed the door on Lawrence High's designs on an upset, but also on its own brief legacy as a team that couldn't count on its defense to get the job done in key situations.

"Our defense was a weakness last year," said Petz, a senior who was one of numerous underclassmen forced into action on the Firebirds' youth-laden roster in 2005. "We made some adjustments in the type of defense we play and also in our attitude.

"We've gotten a chip on our shoulder, and we've realized if we're going to be the type of team we expect to be, we need to step it up."

LHS did find an occasional hole, finishing with 140 rushing yards. Williams earned 96 of them, including the final one on the Lions' opening drive that earned a brief 7-6 lead.

"They got some yards on us," Free State coach Bob Lisher said. "They execute and do things right."

Fortunately for Lisher, his defense picked a crucial moment to do the same.

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