Telling anyone who would listen that just because C.A. Johnson was a Columbia city school without a rich football history that the Hornets were not a “cupcake” opponent, North Central head coach Louis Clyburn has the naysayers believing him now.
C.A. Johnson dealt the host Knights their 17th consecutive opening game loss by downing Clyburn and company, 14-12, on Friday night at steamy Knights Stadium in Boonetown.
While hardly in the mood to say “I told you so,” Clyburn said those who did not believe that Jerry Jackson’s class A invaders are a solid squad will think otherwise now.
“C.A. Johnson is pretty good,” said Clyburn after the Week Zero setback. “They may only have 25 players on their teams, but they are 25 good players. Their offensive line averages 280 pounds across the front and they are very well-coached.”
Saying this was a typical Week Zero game with plenty of mistakes on both sides on a night in which the two teams combined to run 120 plays, an area which Clyburn and his staff worked hard on in the pre-season came back to haunt the Knights on Friday.
Earlier this summer, projected starting center Javon Kershaw moved to Miami. That left NC scrambling for his replacement. They had one in sophomore transfer Chance Grein, who sustained an injured groin in practice in the days leading up to this game but was cleared to play. When his injury reoccurred in the second quarter, the Knights were forced to go to the second string center before he went out of the game in the second half meaning a player who was to start the year as a fourth string snapper was forced into service.
With Grein sidelined, it led to the Knights’ offensive staff making changes on the fly during halftime. The biggest switch was that by evening’s end, the hosts were taking snaps under center rather than in their usual shotgun set.
“We were down to our fourth center and we just couldn’t get the snaps right,” Clyburn said. “We had to abort our entire offense and that was very, very frustrating. Our snaps lost us this game and we probably lost 100 yards due to bad snaps.”
On a night in which the Hornets threw for just 92 yards, 64 of those came on a Charles Mallory scoring strike on the second series of the night. The guests ran in the two-point conversion for an 8-0 lead which accounted for all the scoring in the game’s first three quarters.
“Our defense really played well all night, except for that one big play that we gave up,” Clyburn said. “We have four sophomores and a freshman in our defensive backfield and their guy made a double-move on us.
“We were blitzing on the play and (Mallory) was just able to get the pass off before we hit him. The throw just went over the head of our defender, who had good position on the play.”
Offensively, the Knights struggled with trying to break in new centers with more than one drive stalled due to an errant snap. “We couldn’t get into an offensive rhythm because of our bad snaps,” Clyburn said. “With Chance’s injury getting worse, we could see that our shotgun snaps were going to become an issue for us.”
The Knights, who worked on having the quarterback under center at halftime, were able to find chunks of yardage on the speed sweep only to see the Hornet defense repel the hosts time after time.
After a frustrating first three quarters, the Knights got things going early in the final stanza when quarterback John Bowers capped an exhausting drive with an 11-yard scoring run on the option in the opening minutes of the fourth quarter. Going for two to try and knot the game at 8-8, the call went to tailback William Jenkins who was stopped inside the one as C.A. Johnson’s lead was trimmed to 8-6.
With his team’s offense settling down, by having to work from under center, Clyburn said the Hornets went man-to-man in the secondary while giving the Knights a steady diet of blitzes.
After going for the first down on fourth and eight with some three minutes left in the game, the Knights turned the ball back to the guests who marched to the NC 15. From there, the Hornets took advantage of the NC’s defense over pursuit of a ball carrier and the run went for a 15-yard touchdown and a 14-6 lead with some 90 seconds left in the game.
Calling a time out to set up a two-point play, the Hornets were stuffed by the NC defense as the hosts still had a chance left.
The Knights took advantage of that opportunity when C.A. Johnson decided to try a squib kick after its score. But the ball landed in the arms of NC linebacker Zack Jones near midfield and the sophomore took it home for the touchdown.
“We just changed up our kickoff receiving team to get more speed on the field and Zack was one of those players who we moved,” Clyburn said.
Needing the two-point conversion to tie the game, a play-action pass intended for tight end Will Mathis sailed over the senior’s head as C.A. Johnson would cling to a two-point lead.
Going for the onside kick, the ball traveled just nine yards as the guests took over and held onto the football to come away with the victory.
“It was a great game,” Clyburn said of the pairing. “Both teams were exhausted when it finished. Both teams made a lot of mistakes on offense but we both played very well on defense.”
Bowers clicked on half of his 14 pass attempts for 17 yards. Clyburn lauded his senior signal-caller for playing well on a night in which the revolving door at center threw off the Knights’ timing. “I thought John Bowers played well,” said the NC boss. “It was just that after the first quarter, we lost our rhythm offensively.”
Jenkins led NC with 69 yards on the ground on 21 carries. Due to the errant snaps, however, NC was held to 41 yards on the ground in 51 snaps for just 72 yards in offense. C.A. Johnson ran 47 plays to NC’s 73 and outgained the hosts in total yardage, 92-86.
“Our kids played as hard as they could play,” Clyburn said of his team’s effort. “Like a lot of Week Zero games, there were a lot of mistakes.
“We, as coaches, need to have a better plan for our centers. We may have to move Darius Myers from tackle to center. We really don’t want to have to do that, but we may have to look into doing that this week.”