Westminster's offense had a whole new look in its season opener against Middletown on Friday night.
Sure, the No. 7 Owls passed the ball, but just about all the players were new to the starting lineup — and it showed.
The Owls moved the ball well at times with first-year starting quarterback Duke Etchison taking over, but they were too inconsistent and picked up too many untimely penalties to score enough points to beat two-time defending state Class 2A champion Middletown, which went home to Frederick County with a 19-14 victory.
The Knights earned their 23rd straight win with a pounding running game that the Owls defense did a good job containing most of the time. But on two Knights second-quarter drives that began after Westminster's Noah Cain had to punt from his end zone, Brad Rinehart scored on short runs that ended up making the difference.
After reaching the state Class 4A semifinals last season, the Owls graduated their quarterback and four of their top receivers from a unit that gained more than 4,000 yards through the air. Only senior receiver Ryan Hursey returned, and he caught 15 passes for 207 yards Friday night, including a third-quarter, 17-yard touchdown pass that cut the Knights lead to 16-14.
Etchison, a senior who transferred from McDonogh last year but didn't play, orchestrated that seven-play, 73-yard scoring drive polished off by Hursey's catch, but he was under a lot of pressure late in the game. He completed 32 of 51 passes for 355 yards and two touchdowns, but threw three interceptions and was sacked twice.
The Owls, who now play in Class 3A, began their final drive with 1:22 left and Hursey caught three passes to keep Westminster on the move until time ran out. Etchison threw one long pass to the end zone as time expired, but his receiver fell down and Middletown's Tim Pirrone picked it off.
Westminster coach Brad Wilson wasn't upset with the inconsistency in the offense. He expected some of that with a new unit, but some of the penalties — including five offsides calls and an offensive pass interference call that negated an Etchison-to-Hursey touchdown late in the second half — were troubling.
"It wasn't forced mistakes; it was unforced mistakes," Wilson said. "We get a touchdown taken off the board, an interception down at the 1. But we're still in the learning process with this offense."
Hursey said it's just a matter of time for the new offense to fall completely into sync.
"It's tough having our first game against a great team like Middletown," Hursey said. "But we've shown some signs of greatness at practice. Coach tells us that every day. We've just got to come together on the field and we showed glimpses of it tonight, but the consistency's got to be there."
In the first half, the Owls struggled to move the ball early. Their initial drive ended when Etchison threw an interception on the fourth play of the opening drive.
The Knights scored the only points of the first quarter on Nick Welch's 34-yard field goal with 3:10 left. He would add a 32-yarder with 6:28 left in the game
In the second quarter, the Westminster started moving the ball much better and Etchison hit Shawn Johnson for a 23-yard touchdown with 10:40 left in the half. Johnson made an acrobatic move to stay inside the goal-line pylon and assure the touchdown. Justin Cohen added the extra point for a 7-3 lead.
After that, the Knights took advantage of short field position when Cain had to punt twice from his end zone and Middletown started two of its next three drives from the Owls' 23- and 11-yard lines. Rinehart scored on 3- and 6-yard runs to boost the Knights' lead to 16-7 by the half.
The Owls almost got one touchdown back when Etchison hit Hursey with a 1-yard pass to the end zone, but the Owls were flagged for offensive pass interference and the drive stalled after that.
The schedule doesn't get any easier for the Owls.
While Middletown is rated No. 1 in the MVAL power poll, Urbana is second and Linganore, third. The Owls, rated fourth in the power poll, host Linganore on Thursday and travel to Urbana on Sept. 20 before heading into their Carroll County schedule. The Owls defeated both teams last year.
"Nothing that we did tonight isn't fixable," Hursey said. "We can fix the penalties. We can fix the inconsistencies. We've just got to gel. It's the first game, so we've got a while to go."
M 3 13 0 3 -- 19
W 0 7 7 0 -- 14
M—Welch 34 FG
W—Johnson 23 pass from Etchison (Cohen kick)
M—Rinehart 3 run (kick failed)
M—Rinehart 6 run (Welch kick)
W—Hursey 17 pass from Etchison (Cohen kick)
M—Welch 32 FG