With his team backed up against its own 20-yard line to start the second quarter of Friday's contest against visiting Wilde Lake, Howard coach Bruce Strunk and his Lions were in a tough spot. Fortunately for them, they had plenty of time to prepare a defensive strategy. Like, all night and part of the next morning.
Before the second quarter could begin, officials called the second lightning delay of Friday night, and the game was eventually postponed until Saturday at 10 a.m.
When the game restarted, Wilde Lake pushed the ball all the way to Howard's 1-yard line, but the Lions defense stood up to the pressure, eventually getting a stop on fourth down to end the threat.
"Wilde Lake is a good, well coached team, and we were in a battle last night," said Strunk, whose team gutted out a 14-7 win. " We came back and our kids did a good job. Defensively we stepped up like we had to."
Howard's last win over Wilde Lake was in 2007.
With two of the league's best defenses and offensive lines matched against each other, the game became a battle of field position. The two teams managed only nine first downs each, and struggled to convert on third and fourth downs. Wilde Lake was 3-for-11 on third downs, while Howard was 5-for-14. The Wildecats turned the ball over on downs three times, while the Lions failed to convert on fourth down twice.
Wilde Lake also fumbled the ball away and threw two interceptions, while Howard lost one fumble and had one pass picked off by DeVon Groves.
"The offenses weren't going that good, so field position was a big thing," said Howard defensive back Andrew Young, who intercepted two passes in the second half.
In one stretch, Young — also his team's punter — booted the ball to the Wilde Lake one-yard line where it was downed by his teammates. Then, on the very next play, he intercepted a pass to give his team possession at Wilde Lake's 15-yard line. That turnover did not lead to any points as the Wilde Lake defense held strong. But on the Wildecats' very next possession, Young struck again, picking off another pass, this time at Wilde Lake's 30-yard line. And this time, the offense made it count, when junior Terrell Charles scored what turned out to be the game winning touchdown from two yards out.
Young "had a great game and he also did a great job on their sweep, coming up and making some key tackles or forcing it inside," Strunk said. "He had an outstanding game."
Other defensive standouts for Howard were David Holland, who recovered a fumble and made a tackle for loss, and Jack Friedman and Zach Grasser, who each had sacks. Malik Jackson made a big sack for Wilde Lake, and Eric Handy broke up a pair of passes.
In a loss to Reservoir last week, Howard lost starting quarterback Austin Blair to a broken leg on their first drive.
Tight end Neil Caruso, a former JV QB, stepped in to finish the game under center, and then got his first varsity start this week. He scored the first touchdown of the game with a one-yard run as time expired in the first half. He finished the game with 16 carries for 37 yards, and also completed two passes for 43 yards, including a 40-yard completion to Josh Peoples (30 rushing yards) to set up the first score.
"Neil Caruso is learning right now. He did some great things today and some things he has to work on ... but anytime you beat Wilde Lake you know you did a good job," Strunk said. "I think he's the best tight end in Howard County, in my opinion, so it hurts us in two different places. He's got great hands, and he'd be a great receiver ... but he's a good athlete and he did a good job today."
Wilde Lake scored its lone touchdown on the opening drive of the third quarter, when — after Trevon Jacks returned the kickoff 42 yards — Wayne Long (game-high 68 rushing yards) took a handoff at around midfield and ran 39 yards to tie the game, 7-7. But that was all they would get.
The game was a crucial battle in the 3A East regional playoff race. Coming into this week, Howard was in fifth with a 4.86 playoff point average, just in front of Wilde Lake with 4.71 points. The top four teams in each region qualify for the playoffs.
"Looking at all the points we (found out that we) control our own destiny and (Wilde Lake) were in the same boat, both teams had to win two of their last three," Strunk said. "The way it looks, if we can win next week (at Mt. Hebron) and then we play River Hill (in week ten), I think we have to play River Hill first game of the playoffs as well."
What made this week's game so important is that both Howard and Wilde Lake have to play undefeated defending state champion River Hill down the stretch.
"If you don't (look at this week's game as a playoff game) you were not going to be prepared to play in the game," Wilde Lake coach Mike Harrison said. "But with the craziness of the county, who knows. Maybe we'll get a chance, but we've certainly got to rally and come back and be ready to play against River Hill" next Friday.
WL (4-4) 0 0 7 0 - 7
Ho (5-3) 0 7 0 7 - 14
Ho: Caruso 1 run (Stewart kick), :00. [7-0]
WL: Long 39 run (Quezada-Perez kick), 11:37. [7-7]
Ho: Charles 2 run (Stewart kick), 5:30. [14-7]
WL: Long 9-68, TD; Handy 9-31; Hayward 6-21; Winans 3-10; Rivera 3-5; Team 35-126, TD.
Ho: Anderson 19-42; Caruso 16-37, TD; Peoples 5-30; Charles 2-8, TD; Team 42-117, 2 TD.
WL: Ampofo 4/9, 25, 2 INT.
Ho: Caruso 2/11, 43, INT.
WL: Long 4-25.
Ho: Peoples 1-40.
Leading kick/punt returners
WL: Jacks 1-42.
Ho: Ulysse 1-15.
Around the league
River Hill defeated Reservoir (4-4), 41-0, to improve to 8-0. It was River Hill's fifth shutout of the season. The game began on Friday night and finished on Saturday morning after being postponed due to lightning in the area. The Hawks have now outscored their last three opponents by a combined score of 140-0.
The last time River Hill had three shutouts in a row was in October of 2008 (Reservoir, Marriotts Ridge, Wilde Lake), en route to the program's first state championship.