Lions roar back against THS
Tonganoxie's senior class never had lost to Lansing.
The Chieftains have won the last three meetings with the Lions, and for most of Friday's season opener for both schools, it appeared the seniors would earn a career sweep of LHS.
The fourth quarter, however, prevented that statistic from coming to fruition.
After 49 minutes of football Friday night against Tonganoxie, it looked as though the Lions were on pace for a fourth straight loss to the rival Chieftains. The offense wasn't clicking. The crowd was nervous. The players on the sideline looked stunned.
As surprising as Lansing's struggles had been up to that point, the greatest shock came in the final 10:23 when the Lions erupted to life and stormed back for a 14-10 victory at Frank Graham Field.
"We were really good for three quarters and five minutes," THS coach Mark Elston said. "The last seven minutes we weren't very good on defense or offense."
The Lions (1-0 overall and 1-0 in the Kaw Valley League) dug themselves an early hole because the defense was unable to stop Tonganoxie's up-the-gut running game. The Chieftains rushed for 181 yards during the game, and most of the yardage came in the first half courtesy of fullback B.T. Fleming and tailback Matt Drake. Both backs took turns rushing the ball on the opening drive as THS marched 66 yards on 11 plays before settling for a 23-yard Jeff Hughes field goal.
Lansing mustered a few short drives by completing passes to receiver Ryan Robbins and tight end David Kern, but the running game was totally dormant during the first half.
Tonganoxie continued to have success on the ground throughout the rest of the half. Despite the success that Fleming and Drake had, the Chieftains elected to blend in a few deep pass plays.
Twice the Chieftains threw deep. Twice the passes were picked off.
Lansing's Jeff Collins recorded the first interception, while Joe Kohl snagged the second. Both picks halted drives when THS was having success running the ball. The interceptions also kept the Lions close enough to strike in the second half.
Things weren't going well for the Lions during the early minutes of the third quarter. Lansing, which had the ball first in the second half, lost possession when junior tailback Kyle Grape fumbled the ball on the first play of the half. Five plays later, Hughes broke off a 41-yard touchdown run for the Chieftains. He accounted for all Tonganoxie's points -- a field goal, touchdown and extra point.
From the 10:06 mark of the third quarter through the end of the game, however, the Chieftains didn't threaten the end zone again. It almost didn't matter, though, because for a while it seemed Lansing wouldn't score at all.
After a three-and-out by LHS, Kern picked off another Tonganoxie pass and halted a scoring drive at the 14-yard line. On the very next play, Collins fumbled the ball back to THS. At that point it seemed the Lions were finished.
That's when the momentum swung. On fourth-and-goal at the nine-yard-line, Tonganoxie attempted a fake field goal. LHS senior Steve Lillard raced into the backfield and tackled Hughes for a nine-yard loss. Lansing didn't score on the ensuing possession, but the momentum had swung. The defense stepped up and forced a quick three-and-out and then got the ball back with 10:23 remaining in the game. That's when the game changed for good.
With 10:23 on the clock, senior quarterback Matt Warner dropped back and fired a pass to Kern on a 10-yard out pattern. Tonganoxie's Daniel Volk leapt in front of Kern to intercept the pass, but Kern gripped the ball with two hands and tore it away from Volk for a Lansing first down. In an instant, Lansing's offense was rolling.
Two plays later, Hughes was whistled for a 22-yard pass interference penalty when Warner tried to connect with Kern again. Then Grape -- making his first start as the varsity tailback -- rushed for a nine-yard gain up the middle. Then came a one-yard gain by senior fullback Lance Fink, another five-yard run by Grape and a three-yard burst from Fink. Grape carried again for five yards, followed by a four-yard plunge up the middle and a one-yard dive up the middle for a touchdown.
With 4:55 on the clock, Tonganoxie's advantage suddenly stood at 10-7.
After Grape's touchdown, the Lions forced another three-and-out and got the ball back with 3:11 remaining.
Immediately Warner looked to Kern for a 14-yard gain. Down to 2:57 on the clock.
Then came a run by Grape up the middle.
Down to 2:37.
Then a 14-yard pass to Robbins. Only 2:10 left.
A 15-yard completion from Warner to Kern at the THS 26-yard line. The clock ticked to 1:46.
On first down, Warner dropped back and dumped a pass over the defense to Grape. Grape turned and sprinted for the left sideline. Robbins raced in and cleared out the first defender. Grape lunged for the end zone pylon in hopes of evading the second would-be-tackler.
After controlling the game for much of the first three quarters, the Chieftains suddenly were in trouble.
With 1:15 to go, however, the Lions still had to hold on to their first lead of the game.
Tonganoxie, still with time to regain the lead, started its possession on its own 40 after Lansing's ensuing kickoff sailed out of bounds.
The first play from scrimmage was an 11-yard completion from Hughes to Tyler Miles. Then came a one-yard run up the middle from Hughes. With just 52 second remaining, Hughes handed off to BT Fleming up the middle, but Ryan stripped the football from him and dove on it.
The game, however, wasn't completely finished.
Lansing still had to run out the clock, but eventually did so. In the final minute, however, Tonganoxie's Aaron Adcox was ejected. As Lansing's quarterback took a knee on one of the Lions' final plays to run out the clock, Adcox came across the line and made helmet-to-helmet contact with Warner.
Moments later, Lansing secured its win and sent Tonganoxie home a loser in a season opener for the first time since 2002.
Tonganoxie, which has been accustomed the last couple years to having plenty of experienced players returning, had its first night of growing pains with a younger squad. Elston said that physically, his squad was in good shape. Team members simply made mental mistakes that must be corrected.
"To Lansing's credit, when you have all seniors, those mistakes don't always take place," Elston said.
The sixth-year coach acknowledged his team's miscues, but also said the defense played well, while the offense proved to be productive as well.
"We had some really positive things," Elston said. "The offensive line did very well. The defensive line, when we were lined up correctly, played extremely well."
Now 0-1 overall and 0-1 in the Kaw Valley League, the Chieftains will look to get back on track when Tonganoxie travels Friday to Kansas City, Kan., to take on Bishop Ward.
THS squeaked past Ward last season with late scores -- much as Lansing did to Tonganoxie last Friday. And like Lansing, Ward will have an experienced team on the field.
"They've got 14 seniors," Elston said. "They're enormous. They have three lineman who are well over 300 pounds and they have some quick secondary people."
The Cyclones also will be looking for their first victory of the season. Ward fell last Friday to Bishop Miege, 36-7.
"They took one on the chin too, so they're going to be as hungry as we are," Elston said.