DANVILLE – When conference play begins, things tighten up. Each play becomes crucial and the little things matter more. And on Friday night at Tough Street Stadium, the ‘little thing’ that turned into a big thing was field positioning.
Of Highland’s 11 offensive possessions in its KMAC opener against Danville, five began in Blue Devil territory. The Fighting Scots scored touchdowns on all five drives.
“It’s huge,” Highland head coach Chad Carpenter said after the game. “Any time that we can get takeaways and put our offense in good position to score, it’s great.”
The Scots took advantage of muffed punts, turnovers and electric returns from senior speedster Brock Veley to put themselves in favorable field position all night long. They beat Danville soundly, 50-27, in each teams’ KMAC opener. Highland improved to 3-1 (1-0 KMAC), while Danville dropped to 0-4 (0-1 KMAC).
Field positioning proved to be crucial at the game’s turning point, late in the second quarter.
Up 14-7 with less than three minutes to go in the first half, Highland found themselves with a first-and-goal opportunity from the 4-yard line. The Blue Devil defense staged a thrilling goal-line stand, however, and Danville took over on downs from the 1-yard line.
When the Blue Devils couldn’t muster a first down, they were forced to punt from deep in their own end zone with 30 seconds left until intermission. Only the kick was “shanked,” in the words of Danville head coach Ed Honabarger, careening off the side of senior Corbin Hazen’s foot and landing out of bounds at the Danville 19-yard line.
Like they did all night long, Highland capitalized. The Scots scored with three seconds left until halftime on an eight-yard touchdown pass from senior quarterback Ian Taylor to a diving Veley in the corner of the end zone, as the tailback barely kept one foot in-bounds to complete the reception.
The visiting crowd went wild. The home sideline appeared stunned. Just like that, mere moments after Danville felt momentum swing its way following the goal-line stand, a special teams miscue handed the mojo right back to Highland. The Scots went up by two scores heading into the locker room.
“It would’ve been so much nicer if we could have gotten a first down and just run that clock out, go to halftime down by one score,” Honabarger said. “Then we just got the punt, we shanked it a little bit. It happens.
“We’ve just got to start creating more of our own breaks. That’s the difference right now – the little things and creating our own breaks at the right times. We’re just not at that stage yet, unfortunately.”
The Scots weren’t finished, though, as they came out swinging to start the second half. They used an up-tempo, Wing-T rushing attack to wear down Danville in the trenches, where Highland held a substantial size advantage.
Senior running back Brody Matthews, one of Highland’s four interchangeable tailbacks, glided into the end zone on a 21-yard carry up the left side, putting the Scots up 28-7 following the two-point conversion.
Highland reached paydirt on its next drive as well, scoring on a six-yard touchdown carry from senior fullback Tate Tobin, who led the team with three touchdowns on Friday night. Another successful two-point conversion made it 36-7 with 3:01 left in the third quarter, and at that point, the game was all but out of reach for the Blue Devils.
“They do a great job of getting everybody touches, and they’ve got a big line up front that really leans on people,” Honabarger said of Highland’s rushing attack. “And our kids kept battling, but obviously I think their size wore us down by the late third quarter, early fourth quarter. Because they’ve got some big bodies.”
Highland rushed for 221 yards on Friday night (out of 312 total); Matthews led the way with 110, Tobin tallied 55, Veley had 33 and junior Jack Weaver recorded 25.
The Scots dusted off the passing attack this week as well after throwing for just 11 yards against River Valley in Week 3. Taylor threw for 90 yards on 8-of-10 passing, including the touchdown strike to Veley before halftime.
A bright spot for Danville came late in the third quarter, when the Blue Devil offense seemed to find success behind the efforts of senior tailback Chris Greenawalt. The bruiser rattled off touchdowns on consecutive possessions – one from the 1-yard line after a punishing 48-yard carry to get there, and one on a 71-yard dash to the house – which narrowed the margin to 36-20 at the beginning of the fourth quarter.
Carpenter praised Greenawalt for his physicality, as he seemingly mowed down any Highland defender in his path on Friday night. Despite sitting out most of the fourth quarter with an injury, Greenawalt amassed 178 rushing yards on 14 carries (12.7 yards per carry) against a Highland defense which allowed just 155 total yards of offense last week.
“We knew going in that he was an extremely hard runner and all of their kids are very physical and they get after it,” Carpenter said. “They play very fast, physical football. So we had challenged our kids all week that this is the type of game that’s going to be – not to look at their record at all – and it lived up to being a very physical game on both sides of the ball.”
Honabarger was proud of how his team continued to battle late in the game, and he said they will likely look to use Greenawalt more in a similar fashion in the future.
“They were keying to stop, I think, our jet, and they did a nice job of that. But we were able to get Greenawalt going underneath, which is definitely something we’re going to need going forward, is the running game,” Honabarger said. “So we’ve just got to keep working.”
After Greenawalt’s scores, Highland found the end zone twice in the fourth quarter – first on a 1-yard touchdown plunge from Matthews, then on a 4-yard carry by freshman Jon Jensen. Danville scored with 1:13 left on a 15-yard touchdown pass from senior quarterback Dalton David to junior wideout Alex Holt, setting the final score at 50-27.
The game began with two quick scores from the Scots, both capping off short drives. Veley returned a punt to the Danville 16-yard line to begin the Scots’ first drive, terrorizing Danville defenders with quick cuts and nasty juke moves while nearly taking it to the house himself. Highland struck first moments later with a 4-yard touchdown push from Tobin.
The Scots scored again on their next possession, which began at the Danville 30-yard line after Tobin sacked David and forced a fumble that Highland recovered. Tobin struck again with a 1-yard hop into the end zone, untouched, putting the Scots up 14-0 with 5:03 left in the first quarter.
Danville answered with a David quarterback keeper from one yard out midway through the second quarter, pulling the Blue Devils within 14-7.
After the late-half momentum swing, however, Highland never looked back. Despite some miscues in the first half – the two turnovers, the missed scoring opportunity in the second quarter – Highland seemed satisfied after starting KMAC play with a win at Danville.
“(It’s) very important,” Matthews said of winning on the road. “We try to win league every year and it’s not easy.”
And after tying Danville for the inaugural KMAC title last season, Carpenter and the Scots know that Friday night’s win will be key down the road if they want to claim sole possession of this year's trophy.
“Hopefully we can get some momentum in the league,” Carpenter said. “And let’s face it, any time you can come into Danville and get a win, it’s really good.”
Highland will return home to face Centerburg (3-1, 1-0 KMAC) next Friday.
Danville will go back to the drawing board once again, facing its worst start to a season since 2009. The road doesn’t get any easier for the Blue Devils either, as they will go on the road to face Northmor (4-0, 1-0 KMAC) next week.
Honabarger said that his team will need to put together more sustained offensive drives moving forward, in order to give the defense rest. On Friday night, Highland seemed to have spent the vast majority of the game on offense.
“Last week, we did a good job of having some long, sustained drives, which helps our defense. I mean, we’ve got a lot of kids going both ways,” Honabarger said. “Defense takes a lot out of you, so we’ve gotta be able to eat up clock.”
Honabarger said that Northmor has an offensive attack “similar to Highland’s,” featuring an athletic backfield which will test Danville’s defensive front.
“They’ve got some nice athletes, just like they did last year,” Honabarger said. “We need to eat up clock.”