Leader Blues

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

SPORTS>> Rabbits overcome shaky start to open with win

By KELLY FENTON
Leader sports editor

PINE BLUFF — The Lonoke-Dumas game at Hooten’s Kickoff Week was expected to be a track meet and, with nearly 800 combined yards and 41 first downs, it did not disappoint.

Yeah, it was a track meet all right. The problem was, no one could hold on to the baton. Dumas, which has 18 new starters, turned out to be just a little more careless with the ball than the Jackrabbits, though — accounting for six of the game’s 10 turnovers — and that, in the end, proved the difference as Lonoke opened the 2008 campaign with a sloppy 35-20 win on Monday afternoon at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff.

Rollins Elam appeared to be fully recovered from last season’s Week 8 broken ankle, throwing touchdown passes to Michael Howard and Clarence Harris.

“Rollins was on and he was off,” Lonoke head coach Jeff Jones said of his senior quarterback who completed 14 of 25 passes for 252 yards. “But he delivered the ball and stepped up in the pocket like a champion.”

Meanwhile, the Lonoke defense dealt fits to Dumas quarterback Darion Griswold all afternoon. No one was a bigger headache to the 6-4, 220-pound sophomore than linebacker/defensive end Joel Harris who seemed to be everywhere, including the Dumas backfield. Harris racked up seven solo tackles – 14 overall – and recovered both Bobcat fumbles.

He was joined by linebacker Eric Graydon and defensive back Lance Jackson in piling up double-digit tackles in the contest.

Jackson led the way with 15 total stops, including forcing a fumble deep in Lonoke territory in the first quarter. Graydon had 10 stops, while defensive back Terrell Washington picked off two of Griswold’s passes. Todd Hobson and Darius Scott got the other two picks as Griswold, who appears to be a star in the making once he learns to set and throw, was a load to bring down the entire game.

“We bent and we bent and we bent,” Jones said. “But somehow, somebody would come up with a big play.”

After Griswold rumbled through theJackrabbits’ defense for 93 first half yards, Lonoke limited him to just 57 in the second half. Combined with shifty and tough-running back Matt Moreland, who added 112 yards on the ground, Dumas offered a fairly potent 1-2 punch offensively. But the turnovers, as well as 12 Dumas penalties, were just too much to overcome.

“In an offense like ours, you can’t have that many penalties,” said Dumas head coach Mark Courtney. “You can’t have third and 15 and stay in the game. We killed ourselves every time.”

Griswold’s ineffectiveness through the air — 6 of 24 with four interceptions — can largely be credited to the Jackrabbits’ pressure defense.

“Basically, that was our game plan,” Jones said. “We knew (Griswold) was young. We were kind of grasping at straws, like, how you gonna stop the big guy? And that’s why we figured we better get in his face, because he’s going to be something special.”

The old adage that the game is a matter of inches never proved more accurate than in Monday’s battle when twice the Bobcats failed to punch the ball in at the Lonoke goal line. Perhaps the biggest sequence of the game came early in the third period when, after an Elam interception, the Bobcats began a march toward a game-tying touchdown. Griswold broke off a 24-yard run to the 14 and Dumas reached the 2-yard line five plays later. On fourth down, it appeared running back Daveon Horn had a seam into the end zone, but Joel Harris and Nick Head wrapped him up as he tried to reach the ball across the goal line.

Earlier in the contest, Griswold fumbled as he was lunging into the end zone, and the ’Rabbits recovered.

If that weren’t deflating enough for the Bobcats, Lonoke marched 99 yards in just seven plays after the defensive stand. Two big pass completions from Rollins to Joel Harris — 21 yards to the Lonoke 29 and 51 yards down to the Dumas 3 — set up Clarence Harris’ 3-yard scamper. From a potential 21-21 tie two minutes earlier to a 28-14 Lonoke lead late in the third period.

“No doubt that was big,” Jones said. “Defensive stands like that are something you can build on. Hopefully, that will carry over to the next nine ballgames.”

Most of the remaining suspense was erased two minutes later when Griswold threw one up for grabs near midfield and Washington picked it and raced 52 yards to make it 35-14 with 1:57 left in the third.

But Dumas was hardly through and marched 64 yards in 12 plays on the ensuing possession to narrow the lead to 35-20, still with 10 minutes left in the contest. The ’Rabbits responded by milking the clock, keeping the ball on the ground and holding it for nearly four minutes. They had the hammer raised and ready to pound in the nail when Rollins was picked off at the Dumas 3 and the Bobcats immediately struck for a 32-yard completion to midfield. The game was in danger of becoming a nailbiter again when Dumas wide receiver Aaron Dennis broke wide open on a post pattern at the Jackrabbit 10. But Griswold overthrew him and three plays later, Washington picked off his second pass to secure the win.

It was rough going early for the fleet and experienced Lonoke offense. After Hobson picked off a Griswold pass on the game’s fifth play, the Rabbits hit on a 59-yard Rollins-to-Joel Harris pass play, but Corey Freeman knocked it loose and Dumas recovered at the Lonoke 27. It took Dumas seven plays to put the first points on the board when Griswold went over from two yards out.

Lonoke sputtered on its next two possessions before Jackson’s big hit popped the ball loose from Horn, and Joel Harris recovered to set Lonoke up at the Dumas 20 late in the first period. The Jackrabbits tied it 50 seconds into the second period when Rollins connected with Howard from eight yards.

“No doubt there were jitters,” Jones said. “But those are jitters we’re going to have to improve on. I’m not going to try to make excuses. I know Dumas had a lot to do with that with their physical play and their speed on the field. We’re going to have to go back home and get crisper on our offensive execution.”

Dumas reclaimed the lead after an interception set it up at the Lonoke 27 and Griswold burst through from 18 yards to make it 14-7 with 6:20 left in the first half. But Lonoke answered immediately, going 56 yards on five plays — the final one, a 9-yard sweep to paydirt by Clarence Harris to tie it.

Lonoke took a 21-14 lead into the locker room with a 47-yard drive over the final four minutes of the half. Rollins found Clarence Harris on a slant in the end zone and the leaping Harris went high over his defender to haul it in. Lonoke never trailed again.

Lonoke showed plenty of balance offensively, rushing for 161 of their 413 total yards. Still, Jones thought the offense struggled to find a rhythm.

“We mixed it up well,” he said. “Still, we didn’t have the sync and the pace we normally have. For some reason, it was off.”