Howard senior Vanden Vale talks about his team's 20-0 win over Mervo in a 4A North region semifinal game on Nov. 13. (Tim Schwartz/Howard County Times video)
On Howard junior Bryson Craven's first interception, all he could think about was getting into the endzone.
Though he came up 8 yards short, it didn't take long for him to get another chance.
Craven picked up his struggling offense early in the second quarter and intercepted another pass near the sideline and returned it 60 yards for a touchdown that put his team up 13-0.
"It feels great. It feels like I really stepped up to the plate. As a junior, I'm feeling like I'm getting better each week," Craven said. "I was just trying to help my team out because offensively we had a few kinks we need to work out."
In a dominating defense effort, the Lions shutout visiting Mervo, 20-0, in a 4A North region semifinal game on a cold and windy Friday night.
"The defense played a great game," said Howard coach Bruce Strunk. "It was probably the best complete effort we've had on defense all year."
The defense held the Mustangs (9-2) to just four first downs, and their longest drive was six plays – which ended in Craven's pick-six. Craven ended the day with three interceptions, and the Lions also racked up seven sacks, including three by junior Muddy McHemba.
"Bryson's a hell of a player. He's one of the best corners in Howard County in my opinion," Strunk said. "Our pass rush, we forced the quarterback to throw the ball or get sacked. He threw a couple up there and Bryson was where he was supposed to be and he made the plays that he always makes."
The Howard offense, meanwhile, struggled to pick up consistent yardage and didn't pick up its first first-down of the game until the second to last play of the first quarter.
Craven's first interception set up Vanden Vale's 8-yard touchdown run just one play later, and senior Malik Anderson, who was held in check all night, found the endzone from 2-yards out early in the fourth quarter to put the Lions up 20-0.
"I felt like our entire defense, we were all there," McHemba said. "If the offense is slacking, we have to pick it up. That's just how it goes. Defense wins championships. Offense, they score points, but the defense can do the same thing. If we have to, we will."
McHemba, wearing the No. 88 like 2014 Defensive Player of the Year Winston DeLattiboudere did last year, said there was a competition between the linemen on who was going to get the most sacks. He was happy to say that he won.
"It feels to good. I know I have high expectations after Winston did so well last year, and he was so impactful," McHemba said. "I'm very happy that I am able to make an impact. I want to make plays and make my team better."
Howard started the game slow, going three and out on its first three drives. But the defense stepped up with two sacks in the opening quarter, and Craven intercepted his first pass with less than four minutes to go in the quarter. Vale scored on the next play.
The Lions defense forced Mervo to another three and out, and then the offense started to find their groove. Cameron Cooper broke loose for a 27-yard run to start the drive, then two plays later he scampered for a 23-yard gain. Howard had second and goal from the 1, but couldn't punch it in. A delay of game proved costly, and Crawford threw two incomplete passes in a drive that ended with a turnover on downs.
"Their defense is really good, and our offense didn't play very well," Strunk said. "We are a football team and if one part of the team isn't playing up to par, we have the other side. Our defense came to play tonight."
Mervo looked to find some rhythm on offense on the next drive, picking up two first downs and gaining 30 yards, but Craven's interception that was returned for a touchdown ended what would be the Mustangs best drive of the night.
Neither team got much going until the fourth quarter when the Lions finished a five-play, 40-yard drive with an Anderson 2-yard touchdown run.
On the Mustangs last two drives, Howard earned three straight sacks to force a turnover on downs, and Craven picked up his third interception of the night in the endzone which allowed the Lions to run out the clock.
"Between the pass rushing and coming up and making the hits and the interceptions, everybody did what they were supposed to do," Strunk said. "We had some situations where we could have put more points on the board and we didn't. In the playoffs, you can't do that. We'll start working tomorrow and we'll get better. ... A playoff win is a playoff win. That means we get to play one more week."
Though Anderson finished the game with a modest 22 carries for 46 yards, he broke a long-standing school record. With over 4,200 total yards in his career, he passed Dalawn Parrish, a 1995 graduate who totaled 4,157 all-purpose yards, for most yards in Howard football history.
Howard will host Sherwood, which beat Bel Air, 27-22, in the 4A North region title game next week.
Glenelg's Wande Owens scored three touchdowns in the spot of running back Trey Davis to lead the Gladiators to their second straight 3A East region title game. They will travel to face Reservoir next week.