Before Friday night, nobody had applied much pressure to Shawnee Mission East High senior quarterback Jordan Darling.
Free State coach Bob Lisher and his staff had seen the evidence on film. Yes, Darling looked the part of a big-time high school QB who had committed to Kansas University. But the 6-foot-4, 226-pound senior was making the game look easy because no one was harassing him.
The Firebirds weren’t interested in contributing to Darling’s highlight reel. They pressured him from all angles, making his night miserable. By the end of Free State’s homecoming game, Darling had thrown three interceptions and the Firebirds shut out previously unbeaten SME, 28-0.
“We had a total defensive effort,” Lisher said. “Our defense played outstanding tonight. We need to grow from that.”
The Firebirds (5-1) had a revolving door of defenders unleashing hits on Darling, who was sacked seven times on a night when he completed just nine of his 28 passes for 75 yards.
First, it was defensive lineman Cody Stanclift leading a gang of tacklers to bring down Darling in the backfield. Then linebacker Blake Winslow and lineman Fred Wyatt stuffed the QB. Next, linebacker Corban Schmidt ripped him down by the ankle. Then Winslow scored a sack by himself. Tye Hughes and Riley Buller combined for another takedown. Then linebacker Keith Loneker drilled him from the blind side on a blitz. Finally, Schmidt and Loneker teamed to introduce Darling to the stadium turf one last time, leaving the SME QB with a brutal rushing total of 16 carries, minus-12 yards to go with his passing struggles.
Loneker credited Free State’s defensive line for setting up the linebackers, and still gave Darling respect.
“He’s very good, he’s very quick in the pocket,” Loneker said, “but we were in the right spots in the right time, just like our coaches teach us.”
Remarkable defense had been the plan all along for FSHS against the Lancers (5-1), senior defensive back Demarko Bobo said.
“The constant pressure was getting to his head,” Bobo said, “and that allowed him to make bad passes and we got to make plays on those.”
Bobo’s interception and 29-yard return for a touchdown with 4:27 left in the second quarter gave Free State its fourth and final takeaway of the evening, and a 21-0 lead.
“I tried to find the widest open spot on the field,” Bobo said of his interception return, “and once I did I knew I was gonna score, because I trust my guys to block me into the end zone.”
Before that, it was junior safety Joe Dineen making SME pay for its mistakes. He first ripped off a Darling pass on a third-and-18 midway through the first quarter. That set up an eight-play TD drive for the Firebirds, which finished with senior quarterback Kyle McFarland connecting with Hughes for a 21-yard score with 2:08 left in the quarter.
When SME got the ball back, Dineen struck again, with his second pick coming on the first play of the second quarter.
Later, with the Lancers backed up inside their own 10-yard line and facing a fourth-and-14, punter Connor Rellihan had some trouble getting off a punt in the end zone. He ran to his left, seeming to look for a potential pass or an angle for a rugby-style kick, but the pursuit of the Firebirds took away both of those options. Finally, Rellihan came out of the end zone and the ball popped out of his hands, falling right in Dineen’s lap. Six yards later, Dineen was in the end zone and Free State had a 14-0 lead.
Dineen didn’t know why Rellihan didn’t punt the ball away, but he knew junior FSHS lineman Zach Bickling contained the speedy, troubled Lancer once the play went awry. After that?
“I was just lucky to be in the right spot,” Dineen said.
The FSHS defense was more dominating than lucky the rest of the night. After its four-takeaway first half, Free State forced five straight three-and-outs to open the second half. The Lancers finished with 192 yards of total offense and 71 of those came on their final drive of the game.
The Firebirds’ offense moved the ball just enough, finishing with 220 yards in the shutout. Senior TJ Cobbs (14 rushes, 86 yards) helped Free State eat up the clock in the second half.
Cobbs picked up three first downs on the ground in the fourth quarter, after FSHS had already padded its lead with a 36-yard TD pass from McFarland to Khadre Lane down the right sideline. Lane caught the bomb inside the five, took a hit and carried the ball inside the pylon, leading to a 28-0 margin with 9:40 to play. It was McFarland’s third and final completion of the night, not that the low total mattered a bit.
With the defense on fire, Lisher said the Firebirds played their best game of the year.
“That’s something this team’s capable of doing (more often),” the coach said of the effort.
Bobo said the convincing shutout should serve as an announcement of sorts.
“It proves that we’re a top-tier team,” Bobo said, “and we can handle anyone in the state.”