Calvert Hall senior Tim Downs vividly remembers the Saturday morning before Thanksgiving 2020, when football coach Josh Ward gathered his team in a lecture hall before its scheduled practice and delivered the news that nobody wanted to hear.
The Turkey Bowl — a game that had survived the Great Depression, two World Wars and taken place for 100 consecutive years — would be canceled amid the raging coronavirus pandemic and a Baltimore County executive order restricting the size of outdoor gatherings.
“We were all crushed,” recalls Downs. “We were so upset and mad that we couldn’t play … especially some of my friends who were seniors. It was really a lot of emotion.”
A little more than one year later, the tradition is set to resume at 10 a.m. Thursday when No. 2 Calvert Hall takes on Loyola Blakefield in the 101st edition of the venerable series at Towson University’s Johnny Unitas Stadium.
For a large number of players on both sides, last year’s cancellation means this will mark the first time they’ve played in — or, in some cases, even attended — a Turkey Bowl.
“That’s the crazy thing. A lot of these guys, our freshmen and sophomores at both schools, have never participated in a Turkey Bowl. Not even being at one,” Cardinals coach Josh Ward said. “We’re just preaching the importance and the history of this game to our guys.”
“That’s where some of the upperclassmen have an opportunity to let them know what the Turkey Bowl is all about,” Downs said. “We fill them in.”
The rivalry, which officially began in 1920, is one of the oldest between two Catholic high schools in the country. It annually draws crowds of around 10,000 to Towson University, and also previously spent many years at M&T Bank Stadium and, before that, Memorial Stadium.
Calvert Hall (9-2), which on Saturday beat McDonogh to claim its first Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association A Conference title since 2010, has dominated Loyola in recent years, winning six straight and 10 of the past 11 meetings. The Dons (8-3), however, still lead the all-time series, 49-43-8, and are especially hungry for a Thanksgiving win after falling to Concordia Prep, 14-3, in Sunday’s MIAA B Conference championship game.
“We need to break the [losing] streak,” Dons coach Anthony Zehyoue said. “I tell our players that a rivalry isn’t a rivalry if only one team is winning. Hopefully that motivates them.”
What also may help is that, unlike some previous years, both teams have had less than a week to prepare. Though that might seem like a negative, Zehyoue believes it may be just the opposite for his team, which in recent years has had to wait as long as four weeks to play while other teams took part in the MIAA playoffs.
“Honestly, a big problem we’ve had in previous years is having too much time, so we’ll try a different approach,” Zehyoue said. “My first year as head coach, I believe we had 27 days in between our last regular-season game and the Turkey Bowl, so this really just forces us to keep first things first. There have been years when we’ve had a game plan that we felt good about, then you … watch more film and you’re like, ‘Oh no, let’s do this,’ and you’re just spinning your wheels.
“The only substitute for playing football is playing football.”
A fast start will be imperative for the Dons, who haven’t so much as taken a lead against Calvert Hall since 2014. And they also must avoid the costly turnovers that have plagued them in recent years.
Perhaps just as importantly, Zehyoue said his team needs a psychological advantage.
“We’ve lost a few years in a row, so we’re just trying to make sure we play the game with confidence,” he said. “They’re no more or less talented than any other Calvert Hall team. So the biggest thing is controlling the elements that we can control, like our level of play and our belief in each other.”
For the Cardinals, an advantage in talent must translate to the field.
“Offensively, we just can’t turn the ball over,” Ward said. “Our offensive line has got to be able to pass block and get to the next level on run blocks. I think we just have to get the ball into our impact guys’ hands and not turn the ball over, and we’ll be fine.”
Still, Ward equated the annual matchup to a Ravens-Steelers game, where the outcome usually seems to be close, no matter the teams’ talent level.
Zehyoue said he’s fine with the fact that many of his players have never witnessed a Turkey Bowl. It’s this unfamiliarity with playing in front of a near-sellout crowd, or in front of TV cameras, that he sees as an advantage of sorts.
“Sometimes, ignorance is bliss for those young guys,” Zehyoue said. “You don’t want to put it in their head like, ‘Oh, there will be thousands of people there.’ You’re just like, ‘No, it’s just a regular-old football game,’ even though we know it’s not.”
101st Turkey Bowl
LOYOLA BLAKEFIELD (8-3) vs. CALVERT HALL (9-2)
Thursday, 10 a.m.
at Towson University
TV: Chs. 2, 7
What else to know
Series: Loyola leads, 49-43-8
Last meeting: Calvert Hall, 33-10 (2019)
Streak: Calvert Hall has won six straight and 10 of 11
Coaches: Calvert Hall: Josh Ward (second season); Loyola: Anthony Zehyoue (sixth season)
Players to watch: Loyola: QB/ATH Jayden Moore (600 passing yards, 6 TDs, 405 rushing yards, 8 TDs, 461 receiving yards, 3 TDs); QB/WR Marcus Hines (761 passing yards, 5 TDs, 169 receiving yards, 2 TDs); RB Micah Robinson (717 rushing yards, 7 TDs); WR Noah Bull (243 receiving yards, 2 TDs); LB Liam Powell (86 tackles, 9 TFL); DE AJ Szymanski (64 tackles, 9 sacks); LB Jonas Kligys (71 tackles, 10 TFL); LB Nick Dubois (64 tackles); MLB/DE Anto Saka (6.5 sacks), K/P Conor Becks (30-for-30 PAT, 13-for-14 FG)
Calvert Hall: QB Noah Brannock (1,605 passing yards, 22 TD, 9 INT); RB Dawon Dorsey (600 rushing yards, 8 TDs); RB Daniel Harper (555 rushing yards, 8 TDs); WR Donovan Lewis (35 receptions, 668 yards, 7 TDs), SB Rahkeem Smith (30 receptions, 594 yards, 13 TDs); MLB Matt Conroy (60 tackles); OLB Dylan Aguilera (52 tackles, 3 sacks); CB KP Price (43 tackles, 2 INT, 2 fumble recoveries); DE Emilie Dore (5 sacks, 4 TFL); DE Daniel Owens (4 sacks, 5 TFL)
Outlook: In a series rarity, both teams are coming off conference championship games last weekend, with Calvert Hall beating McDonogh in the A Conference final on Saturday and Loyola falling to Concordia in the B Conference final on Sunday. As a result, both will be on short weeks, getting in only one or two practices and a walk-through. The Cardinals have dominated the series in recent years, winning six straight and 10 of 11 against their archrival by a combined score of 334-159.
For the Dons to change that, they’ll rely on their quarterback platoon of Moore and Hines, who rotate under center. Moore is a dual-threat quarterback who can make tacklers miss on the run. He’s also Hines’ favorite target, averaging more than 18 yards per reception. At running back, Robinson is averaging 5.3 yards per carry and has rushed for more than 100 yards three times.
Calvert Hall is paced by Brannock, who is more of a drop-back passer with a lofty 107.2 passer rating but also can take off on foot when needed. His top targets are Smith and Lewis, who each have averaged more than 19 yards per reception and have combined to catch 20 touchdown passes. On the ground, Dorsey and Harper are the primary ball-handlers, combining for nearly 1,200 yards and 16 scores.
Both teams are well balanced on offense, gaining as much on the ground as through the air. A quick start is imperative, particularly for Loyola, which has been outscored by the Cardinals 53-0 in the first quarter dating to 2015. One common opponent among the two was McDonogh, which beat Loyola, 24-7, but lost to Calvert Hall twice by a combined 38-15. The Cardinals also put up 49 points in a win over St. Mary’s, which defeated the Dons, 14-12, in the season-opener. Both teams also defeated John Carroll and Pallotti.