Free State High football coach Bob Lisher wasn’t happy with his team’s running game going into its match-up against Shawnee Mission Northwest. The Firebirds had been without starting running back Shawn Knighton, who was out because of an ankle injury last week, and the offensive line was not bringing the physicality the coach desired.
That all changed Friday night at Free State.
Knighton, a senior, had 15 carries for 166 yards and two touchdowns, one of them a 51-yard highlight featuring a cut-back near the 40-yard-line that made his ankle look just fine.
“My ankle was still giving me problems, but I had to push through it,” Knighton said.
That run put the fork in a 42-7 trouncing of the Cougars on Free State’s homecoming night.
“I just saw the hole and exploded ... I hadn’t gotten to the end zone this year yet, so I had to try to get one tonight,” said Knighton, who credited his offensive line for its strong play.
“The first couple runs, you could tell he was a little shaky, but then he got into the rhythm and he was downhill and he was making play after play after play and hitting the hole where it needed to be hit,” Lisher said.
Despite his big evening, Knighton was not even the Firebirds’ leading rusher. Junior quarterback Kyle McFarland ran 18 times for 202 yards and three touchdowns and threw for 71 yards. Free State finished with 445 yards rushing on a SWNW team that entered the night as the Sunflower League’s top rushing defense.
Free State forced a pair of fumbles on the Cougars’ first two drives. Firebirds Joe Dineen and Cody Stanclift recovered them.
Junior running back T.J. Cobbs got things going on the ground with a 14-yard touchdown run with 2:10 left in the first quarter.
The Firebirds (3-1) steadily built on that lead by dominating the line of scrimmage and burning past the second level of the defense to send the visitors on a bus ride back home with a 1-3 record.
Free State senior linebacker Calloway Schmidt put an end to Northwest’s first drive after that score with an interception at the 34-yard line. McFarland and Knighton took it from there. The running back started the next drive with a 30-yard gain, and the quarterback ended it two plays later, passing up an option toss to keep it himself and follow an inside lane provided by his line all the way to the end zone.
“From the start our line just opened up holes, and we were getting five yards per carry, usually,” McFarland said.
The coach praised his quarterback’s patience.
“He let his holes develop, where we rushed a few things before,” Lisher said. “They were sending a lot of people. They tried to shut down the run on us by blitzing a lot of people, and our guys are doing a nice job of picking that up.”
The Firebirds forced a three-and-out on the Cougars’ next drive, and Schmidt showed his nose for the football once again, nearly intercepting the ball on third down.
From there it was another heavy dose of McFarland and Knighton. That drive ended with a 15-yard run by McFarland, who went untouched into the end zone on a keeper to put FSHS up 21-0 with 7:02 left in the first half.
Shawnee Mission Northwest then used a 15-play, 76-yard drive for its first and only score of the night with 26.3 seconds left in the half. Running back Danny Manning capped the drive with a four-yard touchdown run.
Manning had 108 of the Cougars’ 146 first-half rushing yards.
Lisher knew his team needed to make some half-time adjustments to contain the Cougars’ running attack, and make adjustments it did. Free State allowed only 72 rushing yards the rest of the night.
On SMNW’s first three drives of the second half, FSHS forced a three-and-out, a turnover on downs after a failed fake punt and another three-and-out.
McFarland mixed in a 50-yard touchdown run and Knighton a four-yard score to give the Firebirds the 35-7 lead at the end of the third quarter.
“That’s what good teams do,” Lisher said. “The defense stops somebody, and the offense has got to come in and continue the momentum, and we did that tonight.”
FSHS vs. SMNW box score
First downs 14 25
Rushes-yards 46-218 40-445
Passing yards 43 71
Total Offense 261 516
Return Yards 32 29
Fumbles-lost 3-2 1-1
Penalties-yards 3-17 3-25
Score by Quarters
SM Northwest 0 7 0 0 — 7
Free State 7 14 14 7 — 42
SM Northwest: Danny Manning 22-121, 1 TD, Colton Dirks 14-39, Davis Millard 3-17, Connor Jarman 2-13, Caulin Pendleton 2-12, Jake Horner 1-3, Luke Fields 1-2.
Free State: Kyle McFarland 18-202, 3 TD, Shawn Knighton 15-166, 2 TD, T.J. Cobbs 1-14, 1 TD, Joe Dineen 2-45, Andrew McLees 4-18.
SM Northwest: Dirks 3-10-43, 1 INT.
Free State: McFarland 6-11-71.
SM Northwest: Luke Fields 3-43.
Free State: Ryan Patterson 3-43, Tye Hughes 2-22, Sam Hearnen 1-6.
How they scored
2:10 —T.J. Cobbs 14 run. Kale Joyce kick. (Free State 7, Shawnee Mission Northwest 0.)
10:52 — McFarland 15 run. Joyce kick. (Free State 14, SM Northwest 0.)
7:02 — McFarland 10 run. Joyce kick. (Free State 21, SM Northwest 0.)
26.3 — Manning 4 run. Jorn Winkelmolen kick. (Free State 21, Shawnee Mission Northwest 7.)
5:35 — McFarland 50 run. Joyce kick. (Free State 28, SM Northwest 7.)
20.4 — Knighton 4 run. Joyce kick. (Free State 35, SM Northwest 7.)
9:23 — Knighton 51 run. Joyce kick. (Free State 42, SM Northwest 7.)