Last year, Lake Clifton was one of just five teams Dunbar did not shut out en route to going 12-0 and winning the 2A state crown. Yesterday, the home-standing Lakers (4-3) were the Poets' first shutout victim of the year, 20-0.
After a scoreless first half that did not include workhorse running back-linebacker Ali Culpepper (27 yards, two touchdowns), the No. 2 Poets (6-1) rebounded behind a defense led by linebacker-tight end Tommy Polley (two interceptions, one touchdown), Dwayne Green (one sack) and defensive backs Doug Hampton and Denelle Williams (each with an interception).
But coming off an undefeated season can change a coach's perspective. And Stanley Mitchell quickly gathered his team for a post-game tongue-lashing.
"We're supposed to be known for playing smart, physical football, but today, we came out and played embarrassingly sloppy," Mitchell told his team.
"Why do we have to wait until the second half until we start playing ball? Why can't we play smarter? This should not have been as tough a game as it turned out to be."
At least Mitchell had hoped it wouldn't be.
Culpepper entered the game with seven sacks and 901 rushing yards and seven touchdowns, but Mitchell had planned to rest the 5-foot-10, 190-pounder, whom he said was "banged up" after last week's 24-12 victory over Carroll in which he was limited to just five yards in the first half.
But with the Poets' offense struggling (142 total yards), thanks to a Lakers' defense led by linebacker Djarrell Dunn (one sack), the third-year coach was forced to call on his ace.
Culpepper, twice set up by the defense, made an immediate impact.
After Devin Murphy returned a punt 30 yards to the Lake Clifton 11, Culpepper sprinted up the middle for the score on the next play, and ran in the conversion for an 8-0 lead with 3:48 left in the third period.
And two plays after teammate Doug Hampton intercepted the Lakers' Joe Abell and returned the ball 12 yards to the Lake Clifton 1, Culpepper swept left untouched for a 14-0 lead with 8:49 left in the game.
Then with four minutes remaining, Polley intercepted Abell again, returning it 85 yards for a score.
The Lakers limited Dunbar quarterback Anthony Wiggins (1,070 passing yards, six touchdowns on the year) to 33 passing yards, but Lakers' running back Darnell Pearsall gained just 54 yards, quarterbacks Abell and Mike Randolph were a combined 5-for-20 for 74 yards, and Dunbar defensive backs Jonathan Thomas and Dalnell Singfield collared second-team All-Metro Terril Lowery (two receptions, 37 yards).