Coach Ross Hannon views Howard football as a run-first team that routinely drives opposing defenses off the ball. Yet at times during its 4-1 start to the season, Hannon thought his group lacked physicality and tenacity. It was especially apparent against Glenelg on Sept. 8, when reigning Howard County Times Offensive Player of the Year Devin Dawkins ran for 45 yards on 21 carries in a 42-14 defeat.
But in the weeks since that lopsided defeat, an inexperienced offensive line began to further grasp the concepts and schemes of the program’s run-heavy attack. The Howard coaches also challenged every offensive player to “expect more of themselves” in terms of their toughness and overall performance.
And in a 22-12 road win against Long Reach on Friday night, Howard played the type of smash-mouth football that has helped it hoist four straight regional championship trophies. The Lions carried the ball 44 times compared to 13 passes and totaled 163 rushing yards to wear down the Lightning on their way to a fourth consecutive win.
“The keys to the victory was the front five,” said Dawkins, who amassed 121 yards and a touchdown on 25 carries. “They came out on the first play off the jump and just hit them straight in the mouth, and I don’t think Long Reach was expecting that coming from our line because we’ve been struggling to run the ball downhill. We’ve been getting a lot of carries but not a lot of yards.
“So I feel like we did that today. We imposed our will like coach has been telling us to do.”
An injury limited Dawkins to five carries in last week’s 22-7 win over River Hill, but the shifty speeder was not at all limited against Long Reach (4-2). He carried the ball three times on the opening drive, helping the Lions advance to the opposing 26-yard line before an Alex Rebaza fumble gave the Lightning their first possession. The drive eventually stalled inside Howard’s 35.
On the first play of Howard’s second offensive trip, Dawkins immediately brought the ball back into Long Reach territory with a 34-yard scamper. He eventually scored a one-run touchdown run and a two-point conversion, putting the Lions ahead, 8-0, late in the first quarter.
The scoring drive ended up covering more yards (66) than Long Reach produced (40) over 16 plays in the entire first half. If not for Luis Gooden Jr.’s dazzling 95-yard kickoff return touchdown following Howard’s opening score, the Lightning would have entered intermission scoreless and without any sort of offensive momentum.
“We’ve got to be better,” Long Reach coach Jamie Willis said. “We’ve got to stop the run better, and when we have our opportunities, we need to make the plays we’re supposed to make. And we didn’t.”
The Long Reach defense did its best to keep the game close, evident by its ability to stuff Howard on four straight plays from inside the 5-yard line late in the second quarter. But after one Lightning first down, a muffed punt gave the Lions possession inside the 30-yard line. And this time, they would not waste a prime scoring opportunity.
Dawkins brought the offense into the red zone, but it was two completions and one slick play design that helped the Lions extend their advantage just before intermission. First came a short pass from senior quarterback Jerry O’Neill, who finished 8-for-12 passing for 111 yards and a touchdown. On the next play, O’Neill pitched the ball behind him to Gabe Williams, who found fellow wide receiver Aidan O'Connor in the middle of the end zone for a six-yard score.
It was that kind of offensive balance that helped the Lions enter halftime with a 15-6 lead.
“Jerry O’Neill is just really doing a great job. He’s a three-year varsity player, knows the system in and out, checks us out of a bad play, has total control of the offense and total confidence in everyone on that field,” Hannon said. “And we’ve got four of five playmakers on that field, and they will go get the ball.”
One of those receiving threats is Williams, who added to his special performance late in the third quarter. Facing a third-and-long from the Lightning 32-yard line, Williams caught a short pass from O’Neill and refused to go down. There were jukes, broken tackles, a burst to the left sideline and a final push to cross the goal line. The result was an exceptional individual scoring effort and exactly the type of insurance Howard (5-1) needed.
Jose Ribalta replaced Eric Benesch midway at quarterback midway through the fourth quarter, and, with the help of multiple Howard penalties, led Long Reach down the field for a touchdown. The score came on a 5-yard pass from Ribalta to Jason Smith but proved unimportant following a failed two-point conversion. With just under two minutes to play, the Lightning still trailed by two scores.
Howard’s explosive rushing offense finally took a step backward after recovering the onside kick, and it did so for good reason. The Lions were in victory formation, with O’Neill kneeling multiple times for negative yardage. And that was perfectly fine with the Lions, who were putting the finishing touches on a road triumph against a formidable county opponent.