It’s often the forgotten phase of a football game, but in rivalry games, like Saturday afternoon’s homecoming showdown between Long Reach and Howard, special teams can be the difference in the outcome.
Neither team mustered much offensively — the host Lightning threw for 58 yards while the Lions managed just 47, almost all of which came in the first half. Both teams held the other team’s All-Howard County running back largely in check and neither defense allowed the big gain. The longest play was a 21-yard run.
The difference, however, was a botched snap on a Long Reach punt that Howard recovered for a touchdown early in the first quarter and a blocked punt early in the fourth that the Lions turned into a score three plays later in a 20-6 road win.
Howard improved to 6-0 for the fourth straight year while Long Reach lost for the second straight week and fell to 3-2. The Lions have won 39 of their last 40 games in Howard County play.
“Our special teams coach Geoff Ciniero is a former college head coach and it doesn’t get any better than that,” said Howard coach Ross Hannon. “He planned it up and we knew we were bringing the pressure. Fortunately it worked out for us and got us a score early and good field position and it took away the emotions of their homecoming.”
Howard senior Anthony Reid delivered the gut punch and recovered the fumble in the end zone to put his team up 7-0 with 7 minutes, 56 seconds left in the opening quarter. After the Lightning went three-and-out on their next drive and had a 12-yard punt into the wind, the Lions took advantage of the short field and extended the lead to 14. Junior running back Devin Dawkins (22 carries, 107 yards, TD) picked up 19 yards on five carries and senior quarterback Robby Porter (5-for-13 passing, 47 yards) capped the drive with a 4-yard touchdown run.
It looked like Howard as going to run away with it but the Lightning’s defense had other plans. They forced punts on three of the next four drives. The other ended with a fumble recovery.
“Our kids knew they could play with Howard ... we’ve just got to cut out the dumb things and the mistakes,” said Long Reach coach Jamie Willis. “That’s what’s beating us right now, the mistakes.”
Meanwhile, Howard’s defense remained consistent. It sacked Lightning quarterback Tyler Moore (15-for-23 passing, 58 yards, TD, INT) three times and DJ Howard stalled their most promising drive to start the second half with an interception.
It’s the fourth time in six games the Lions have allowed six points or fewer. Overall, Howard is averaging 5.8 points against.
“We’re very disciplined and we’re very good up front,” Hannon said of his defense. “We game plan each week to try to make somebody a little more one dimensional, we find out what they do well and focus on what we have to in order to stop that, and we just keep it front of us. We’re not giving up the big play and that’s huge.”
Long Reach eventually got on the scoreboard early in the third quarter. It put together a 10-play, 46-yard drive capped by Moore’s 2-yard jump pass to senior Tre’Von Morgan on 4th-and-goal. Senior running back KaDarrian Booker (18 carries, 68 yards) had 17 yards on five rushes to maintain the drive.
The Lightning forced Howard to punt and took over at their own 26 with a chance to tie the game in the fourth quarter, but they picked up only two yards and Lions senior Robert Agbai blocked the punt and Raymond Tien recovered at the 18.
Dawkins ran for 6, 8 and 4 yards on the next three plays to make it 20-6 with 7:31 to go. “[The punts] changed everything,” Willis said. “... Other than that it’s 7-6 and we had an opportunity. You can’t turn the ball over in rivalry games and you’ve got to be good on special teams. Our kids came out with passion and fight but we’ve got to get better.”
Howard (6-0) — 14 0 0 6 — 20
Long Reach (3-2) — 0 0 6 0 — 6
Ho: Anthony Reid fumble recovery, Michael Peter kick [7-0]
Ho: Robby Porter 4-yard run, Peter kick [14-0]
LR: Tyler Moore 2-yard pass to Tre’Von Morgan, kick failed [14-6]
Ho: Devin Dawkins 4-yard run, kick failed [20-6]