Lancaster will be playing the clock as much as the Clover Blue Eagles when the two schools meet in Region 3-AAAA football action Friday.
Chad Smith’s Clover team is winless on the season (0-7, 0-3 Region 3) and mired in the state’s longest Class AAAA losing streak of 25 games, one that started after a win over Fort Mill on Sept. 9, 2011. The Blue Eagles have inched closer two of the last three weeks to halting their barren stretch, nearly nipping the Rock Hill Bearcats in a 21-14 loss and limiting Nation Ford’s offense in a 28-12 defeat.
But it might be last week’s 49-6 loss to Northwestern that revealed the key to Clover’s chances of getting a win this season. Of the game’s 48 total minutes, the Blue Eagles possessed the ball for 39 minutes and 37 seconds, leaving the Trojans with just 8 minutes, 23 seconds. Incredibly, Northwestern scored 49 points in that short window of opportunity, but most teams Clover will face won’t be able to do that – Lancaster included.
“If we’re able to do it the right way,” Smith said about his team’s unique offensive scheme, “we have a legitimate shot to win.”
Keeping the ball and sapping the clock is the way to beat Bennie McMurray’s Bruins. Lancaster (2-5, 0-3), which is moving down to Class AAA next year, had to consolidate its ninth and junior-varsity squads on Monday, in part because of injury attrition. The varsity hasn’t been immune from the short numbers either, and an offense that hasn’t been able to stay on the field for prolonged drives hasn’t helped.
Lancaster has one of the better defensive fronts in the region. Defensive linemen Darius Truesdale and Don Reid and linebackers Cam Meadows and Quinshun Evans are proving the strongest portion of the Bruins’ starting 22. But they haven’t had much respite from the onslaught.
“Defense has played well all year, but they just burn out,” McMurray said. “We can’t go three-and-out, three-and-out, three-and-out, and they go out there for an eight-play series and then we come right back. But we’re doing all we can; it’s frustrating.”
At a time when his club could really use a bye week, Lancaster gets the unenviable task of facing a hungry Blue Eagles squad. The first thing that low numbers effects is quality of practice, and that problem is exacerbated when preparing for a wing offense, like Clover’s wing-T.
“It’s very difficult, because your scout team can’t simulate it as well as theirs,” McMurray said Tuesday. “It’s smashmouth football. I think they threw it three times against Northwestern, four against Rock Hill, maybe three against Nation Ford … a game. Some people throw that in a series.”
Clover’s decision to hire Smith, a wing offense coach, and stick with what won the school a state title in 2007 flew in the face of contemporary football fads. McMurray’s reaction when asked if he’d ever utilized the scheme during his lengthy coaching career, sums up modern football’s opinion of the wing offenses.
“Never. Never will. Hate it. It’s hell to prepare for,” he said, before adding wryly, “So maybe we need to think about it.”
Of Clover’s 414 completed offensive plays this season, 374 have been runs, and it very likely leads the region in time of possession. It’s amounted to bupkis so far, but that could change Friday, especially if the Blue Eagles cut down on the penalties and turnovers that have stunted drives this season.
“It’s incredibly vital,” Smith said. “We could go from a team with an incredibly long losing streak to being pretty good overnight, if we can get out of our own way.”
Lancaster beat Clover 26-21 last year, and it’s safe to say the Blue Eagles are improved this season under Smith. They’re certainly stronger. When he first took the job, Smith declined to take his team to the region strength meet last spring because he didn’t want the players’ confidence battered any further. Through no fault of their own, the Blue Eagles players weren’t strong enough.
But this fall for the first time in school history every football player was registered for a weight-lifting class. Increased physical strength has led to increased mental strength, which has helped maintain levity amidst a situation that might drown other programs. Smith admits he had to assume a slightly different coaching tact.
“Our kids were so beat down from being told they weren’t any good,” Smith said.
But he still reminds them of the streak hanging over their head.
“I address it every day,” Smith said. “I harp on it.”
There will come a Friday night when Clover’s kids react, all cylinders click and the Blue Eagles crush a luckless opponent, and accordingly, the streak. But as much as Clover is confronting the streak, its opponents do as well.
“We don’t want to be the one that they break the losing streak on,” McMurray said. “We’re certainly not looking past them and saying ‘this is a win.’ We’ve got to line up and go tooth to nail for four quarters against this bunch. Trust me.”
Bret McCormick • 329-4032. Twitter: @BretJust1T