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Howard football pummels River Hill to stay in county title race

On the first drive of Howard football’s 22-7 win over River Hill on Friday night, senior wide receiver Aidan O’Connor made a one-handed, Odell Beckham Jr. like catch to convert a third-and-long and set his team up for an eventual field goal.

In the second quarter, senior Richie Hall pretended to the take the hand off, curled up the left sideline and made an over-the-shoulder catch — with just his left hand — before rumbling into the end zone from 23 yards out.

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And during the next series, Ethan Mitchell put Howard ahead, 22-0, with a diving 31-yard score.

“My receivers were making crazy plays all night,” senior quarterback Jerry O’Neill said.

O’Neill seemed to say it best. These were superb individual efforts that allowed the Lions to jump out to a multi-score advantage, and River Hill coach Brian Van Duesen treated them as such. With those types of plays, there was not much the Hawks’ defense could do.

“You’ve got to give Howard a lot of credit,” Van Duesen said. “Their No. 4 is out and they just plug somebody else in; 31 looked almost just as good as four. They are a huge school, they’ve got tons of guys and they’ve got a ton of depth.”

“They were making plays and we weren’t,” he added. “That’s what it comes down to.”

By number four, Van Duesen was referring to reigning Howard County Times Offensive Player of the Year Devin Dawkins, who recently became the school’s all-time leading rusher. River Hill (3-2) expected Dawkins to receive a bulk of the Lions’ carries on Friday night. Instead, the shifty speedster ran the ball five times for 54 yards for the Lions (4-1).

It was a team decision to keep Dawkins on the sideline for Howard’s opening drive, but he returned on the next possession and immediately torched the Hawks’ defense for a 27-yard scamper. A few plays later, Dawkins put forth an electrifying run filled with jukes, cuts and broken tackles en route to scoring from 22 yards out. However, his touches were limited from there because of an apparent injury.

Many offenses would become stagnant without a player the caliber of Dawkins, but not Howard, which turned to No. 31 Alex Rebaza, a junior, to assume the starting role while occasionally running Hall as a change of pace. Combine their contributions with the effectiveness of O’Neill, who completed eight of his 10 passes for 125 yards in the first half, and the result was a seemingly unstoppable Lions’ attack.

“We played really well up front,” Lions coach Ross Hannon said. “Our offensive line controlled the game a little bit and gave us opportunities to be balanced, you know, our run game sets up our pass game. … We made the plays when they were there to be made.”

River Hill, meanwhile, was never really able to get into an offensive flow against a stout Howard defense. The Hawks accumulated just 49 yards in the a first half that included four punts, a turnover on downs and one play inside the Lions’ 40-yard line.

The Hawks strung together a few more first downs after the break, and on defense, Van Duesen praised his unit for shutting out the Lions in the second half. But their efforts were not nearly enough against the Lions’ stout front seven and ball-hawking secondary.

“It all starts up front, and I think our defensive line did a nice job,” Hannon said. “I thought Cole Carter did a tremendous job of really setting that edge. We’ve been giving that up a little bit, and tonight, that was the difference. He came in and physically dominated that edge, and we got some pursuit to the ball and really forced them to get out of their run game.”

If River Hill were to have made a comeback, it likely would have started late in the third quarter, either in response to a muffed punt or a Rebaza fumble. Both mistakes gave the Hawks the ball just outside of the red zone.

Neither golden opportunity resulted in points, though, as the Hawks turned the ball over on downs following the muffed punt and fumbled the ball right back to Howard on the next possession.

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Approaching the midway point of the fourth quarter, with quarterback Robby Windsor on the sideline after taking a big hit, the Hawks finally got on the scoreboard on a direct snap to wide receiver Spencer Brockdorff, who followed his blockers into the end zone for an 11-yard score. The onside kick failed, but the Hawks did force a three-and-out to reclaim possession with about three and a half minutes to go.

The Lions defense once again trotted out onto the field, but this time, they ensured it would be their final workout of the night. Sure, it allowed backup quarterback Keegan Remick to complete two passes on the drive, but they also forced three incompletions, the last one bringing the offense back onto the field to run out the clock in their fourth victory of the season.

“I think we’re one of the best teams in the county for sure,” O’Neill said. “We just have to play to our ability every night.”

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