Official Blog of the Festus Varsity Football Tigers
by The Gridiron Geek
September 18th, 2015 — Varsity Tigers vs Hillsboro Hawks
The Geek had a reassuring chat with Varsity Tigers volunteer (and former Show Me Bowl participant) Chris Glaze on Monday night at the weekly JV scrum. “Throw everything you think you know out the window,” Glaze said, “when Hillsboro and Festus play.”
Let’s hope he’s right, padawans. Any fair assessment of the 2015 season to date would conclude that the Hawks are the better team coming into Week 5. The Black & Gold again struggled to execute and score points last Friday, while tonight’s vaunted visitors rolled handily over North County.
Last year’s annual showdown of Mississippi Conference heavyweights saw the FHS defense dominate the proud Hawks in a 31-20 result. 2015’s youthful Tiger squad has quietly played fine ‘D at times, allowing only 1 touchdown in the last 5 quarters. But this year’s offensive unit has struggled with indiscipline, missed blocks and dropped passes, and has yet to score 30+ points in a game.
Still, tonight’s rivalry game will decide the conference title. The timing may not be kind. But there is nothing to do but buck up and take a kick at the can.
Hillsboro Head Coach Lee Freeman’s eccentric tactics were addressed in The Mane last season. Despite not having seen the Hawks play in 2015, your humble narrator has caught wind that our local rivals have taken things a step farther.
According to sources, the Hawks are using the Pulaski Academy system.
Pulaski Academy is a modest school in Little Rock, Arkansas whose football team has beaten almost all of its larger rivals using a devilish new concept. The Bruins do not punt. With rare exception, Pulaski uses all 4 downs on offense, all the time and anywhere on the field. They are also not concerned with field position, instead going all-out to prevent big plays by the opposing special teams units.
Therefore, kickoffs are always on-side, dribbled along the ground, or even kicked out of bounds on purpose! The Bruins are also hesitant to field punts and usually let them roll to a stop, giving up field position but guarding against a potential fumble.
Opposing coaches first guffawed at these tactics, until they looked up at the scoreboard. Pulaski head coach Kevin Kelley has been lauded by mathematicians and statistics experts, who believe his decisions improve the team’s odds to out-score a given opponent.
Hillsboro’s adoption of the ‘Pulaski Press’ has had mixed results in the first 3 games, a loss to Saint Louis and faltering wins over overmatched Fredericktown and Seckman. But last week’s absolute shellacking of the North County Raiders shows what an uncomfortable and dangerous opponent the new-look Hawks can be.
On a warm, breezy night at alma mater, a fine crowd is filing in. That’s good, because the Tigers will need moral support and big yells from the stands in this one.
Besides, if a virtual-championship game falls in the woods and nobody is there to see it, it doesn’t score a touchdown.
With a tremendous rush at the concession stand, The Geek wonders if there is time to score his beloved Pretzel Bites before the 7 PM kickoff. The line of customers is 3-wide and winds all the way into the thru-way next to the bleachers.
Glancing at a program, he remembers that veteran QB Sam Mock will be taking snaps for Hillsboro, handing off or passing to swift senior handyman Trey Terry.
Suddenly feeling a nervous stomach and a dry mouth — slinking away to the coaches’ room to grab a bottle of water.
Several sharp-looking HHS coaches walk by on their way to the visitors’ dressing room, wearing the faces of businessmen. Yeah, maybe one more bottled water.
The details of FHS locker-room pep talks are shrouded in mystery, kept private within the Varsity ranks.
However, The Geek can tell you the coaches’ main theme for the boys tonight — enough thinking about your opponent. You are the defending Mississippi champs. The Tigers are the team to beat. The Tigers will set the tempo.
Clock ticking down to the biggest regular-season game of 2015. Oh, Billy, Billy, Billy.
The Hawks field the opening kickoff, and are soon faced with a 4th down and 3. On their own 16 yard line.
Sure enough, the offense lines up to try to convert.
Something about the way the Tiger sideline has reacted, some among us think the gutsy 4th down move has more to do with rivalry than math and science. But let’s see how the decision plays out.
Time-out on the field.
Trey Terry bolts up the right for an 86-yard touchdown run.
Curse you, math and science! Hawks lead 7-0.
As expected, the Hawks are dribbling kickoffs along the ground about 30 yards, hoping for a Festus fumble and keeping the ball away from our return specialists.
The boys look sharp on offense. Jarrett Johnson makes an elusive run to the HHS 14 yard line, then slips in from 5 yards out 2 plays later. Sophomore kicker Chase Cole converts for a 7-7 tie.
Excellent blocking. ZERO PENALTIES. How about that?
The Black & Gold defense must mentally adjust to Hillsboro’s 4-down strategy.
Usually, if an opponent faces 3rd down and 5 or more yards, that’s good news and means you will probably get off the field. Against the Pulaski Press, it means the other team has 2 chances to convert a very manageable down-and-distance.
The Blue and White steamrolls down the field, and Sam Mock scores on an option-keep. 4 seconds left in a lightning-fast 1st quarter. PAT good. HHS 14, FHS 7.
Double-JJ’s 2nd pass is intercepted by Terry, who returns it to the Festus 44 yard line.
Impossible to beat these guys losing the turnover battle. Extra possessions are like gold to Hillsboro’s score-at-all-costs offense.
Tic-tac-woe, the rivals take advantage and score on a 21 yard carry by the sophomore running back, Keller. PAT misses this time, but the Tigers face a sudden 2-score disadvantage.
The boys strike back quickly. A 53-yard power run by junior Seth Perkins creates a 1st down and goal at the Hillsboro 7 yard line.
4th down and goal from the 1. Perkins slips open in the flat, but can’t snag the pass. Hawks take over. That one hurts.
Feeling discouraged, padawans? How about a fumble by the Blue team?
Tigers scramble to recover after the visitors cough it up! New life with another 1st-and-goal.
With an upset bid glimmering, Johnson scores on a beautiful broken-field run. FHS, Rah! Rah!
Cole’s PAT looks wide from the press box, but is called good, and The Geek is reminded (when is he not?) of a bit of old-timey handegg lore.
About 50 years ago (legend has it), Ron Kramer of the World Champion Green Bay Packers attempted a 30-yard field goal in a very important game at Lambeau Field. The kick looked wide to him, but the officials signaled that the ball went through.
Confused, Kramer started walking toward the referee. “But it looked wide,” he started to say. “Why did you guys call it good?”
Suddenly, the place-kicker felt a stern grip on his shoulder, leading him quickly toward the sideline.
The hand belonged to Bart Starr, the Packers’ iconic QB. “Shut up and get off the field,” Starr said.
Hillsboro leads 20-14, 4 minutes to go in the 1st half.
The rival visitors’ deadly option offense is working to perfection. Mock fakes inside, then sends senior Clayton Vassalli around end. 67 yard touchdown, and the Hawks add a 2-point conversion to go up 28-14.
Still no penalties for Festus.
Jarrett fires a bomb down the middle, just too far for junior WR Dallas McKinney, who appears to pull up slightly on the play.
Junior Tyler Rystrom sends a bounding punt to the opposing 22, with 2:22 left in the half. The Hawks make no effort to field the ball.
Bad juju, padawans. Having stopped HHS cold near mid-field, a personal foul penalty smites the Festus defense and moves the ball 15 yards closer to the home end zone. Worse yet, the Hawks receive a fresh set of downs and have time on the clock to score.
The Hillsboro offense breaks through again, Alex Warren taking the honors on a 4-yard TD carry. Another 2-pointer extends the lead to 36-14 at halftime.
Tonight’s 1st half wasn’t frustrating, it was infuriating. The Black & Gold did as they must for 20 minutes — hang around and look for that big 4th down stop, when the Hawks’ daring new strategy could backfire.
But the big TD run for Vassalli, then the unlucky turn of events in the closing minutes has put the Tigers squarely on the ropes.
Excellent Tigerette dance routine on the field. Still a lively crowd despite the big deficit.
Maybe Head Coach Schmidt should pull a Knute Rockne and have the student-athletes tap dance alongside the festively adorned performers. Jarrett Johnson is a dangerous passer when he gets it going, but has not yet gotten into a rhythm with his receivers.
An assistant coach strides into the room, hopeful but bemused by the Hillsboro strategy. “They say, ‘You can score on us. That’s fine, we’ll score more.'”
Festus will receive the 2nd half kickoff.
The passing game shows signs of life on a quick drive downfield, but on 4th-and-3 in the Red Zone, Double-J scrambles and throws complete…to a lineman.
This practice is frowned upon by MSHSAA, which prefers its linemen grizzled, hard and angry — fueled by years of frustration over not getting to touch the egg.
The penalty is a loss of down, and the dangerous Hawks take over looking to put this one away.
FHS senior Robbie Robinson punishes Mock on a 3rd down carry, on the HHS 34 yard line. 4th down coming up.
The Hawks convert on 4th down. Again.
After wisely bleeding the clock on a long drive, the rivals face another 4th down, this time on the FHS 30.
Trey Terry is stopped short! A penalty on the Hawks will be declined. Tigers have the ball, still hanging in there.
2:26 left in the 3rd and the passing attack has come alive. The boys overcome a holding penalty with an 18 yard completion to senior Carlos Austin.
The 3rd quarter ends with a throw down the middle to a suddenly spy, sure-handed McKinney. 1st and 10 at the HHS 29.
The Tigers block, run and pass to the goal line. No margin for error now.
Jarrett leaps to field a high snap, then plunges into the end zone. PAT and the lead is cut to 15 points, 36-21.
The Gold & Black Brigade pep squad has been extemporizing various respectful-but-funny chants during the game, and now chants ITS-NOT-OV-ER! (Clap, Clap, Clap Clap Clap)
Sure isn’t, padawans.
Hillsboro would like nothing more than a long, time-consuming touchdown drive right now. Known as a “4th quarter death march” in option-football lore, such a drive can put an opponent away for good — especially if they’re down by 2 touchdowns already.
Fumble! Just what the doctor ordered as senior Layne Reynolds pounces on a precious loose ball at the Tiger 29. 1st and 10 for Festus High School with just 7:20 left. Open up and go.
Double-J moves the team downfield with a mix of passes and improvisational running. A great reverse-field carry takes the ball to the opposing 35, but a rare penalty moves it back.
The boys have been crazy disciplined tonight, taking only 4 penalties on offense to this point. And the spot is favorable at the 39, as the infraction occurred downfield.
Jarrett hits Elijah Richeson down the middle for 20 more yards. 6th straight completion.
The Hillsboro defense is looking tired. Hands on hips, gasping for air.
Slant pass complete to Elijah to the 1 yard line, and Johnson carries in for his 4th touchdown of the night.
PAT brought to you by Cole’s Pigskin Boots. Thin 8-point lead for the Hawks, 36-28.
Rather than try an on-side kick, Chase is instructed to kick the ball to an open area, left of the kick returner, hoping the boys can streak past enemy blockers and recover.
But the ball takes a couple of funny bounces, toward the center of the field. Hawks field the kick but don’t get much. 1st down at their own 24.
Needing one 1st down to win, the reeling, fatigued Hawks allow a swarm of Festus jerseys through for a minus-5 yard tackle for loss.
Ball on the visitors’ 31. 2nd-and-15 with 1:49 left.
Coach Freeman does not want to give the football back to a red-hot Jarrett Johnson and the surging Tigers. But with so little time left, a failure to make the 1st down on the next 2 plays would bring up one super-important decision: punt for once, or stick to the System?
One thing’s for sure – the momentum of this game has turned on the Hillsboro Hawks like a sudden Missouri thunderstorm.
Warren, having himself a night, finds a crease up the middle, but is dragged down 4 yards short of the line to gain. Coach Schmidt calls his final timeout.
Assuming Hillsboro would elect to punt on 4th down with so little time left, the upcoming 3rd-and-4 play is absolutely huge.
There are times in a sportswriter’s life when it is hard to climb up to the keyboard and describe what just happened. This is one of those times.
Trey Terry, subbed in at running back. Terry up the middle. Terry breaking away. 58 yard touchdown, and that’s all she wrote.
Final score: Hillsboro Hawks 44, Festus Tigers 28.
It will take a while to gain perspective on this one. The boys have nothing to be ashamed of, looking disciplined and brave despite facing a powerful rival and a big halftime deficit.
Is there hope for a late-season resurgence? Yes, based on tonight one would have to think the 2015 Black & Gold are finding an identity as a tough, resourceful team.
But such good feels are slightly tempered upon speaking to FHS assistant coach Jim Sardo, about 30 minutes after the disappointing finish.
“They played a great 2nd half, Coach. It’s promising.”
“No moral victories, Geek. No moral victories.”
Scoreboard check: North County slips by Duchesne 18-14 and will face the Varsity Tigers next week in Bonne Terre. Potosi gives Park Hills Central an unexpected tough battle, losing 25-7. Likewise, a Herculaneum squad of mostly underclassmen gives St. Pius a run for their coin, falling 36-26 to the Class 3 Lancers.
Jefferson wins their 3rd in a row, trouncing Crystal City 32-8.
Silver linings, padawans.
Tonight the Varsity looked capable of challenging the big shots. Hillsboro, ranked in area polls, wound up wounded and worried as the Tigers roared in the 4th quarter. Jarrett Johnson completed 8 straight throws in the final frame, and has over 500 combined yards in the last 2 games.
The fine crowd also got to witness the most emotional and fun contest played at Festus High since last year’s dramatic Senior Night win over Clayton.
But things won’t be getting any easier — next Friday 9/25 brings a challenging road trip to visit the scrappy North County Raiders.
Hop a ride to our southwest and support your Black & Gold in person, or simply stay tuned to the Black & Gold Bulletin on Facebook and visit The Mane for a full report next Monday.
Visit The Gridiron Geek’s Black & Gold Bulletin at www.facebook.com/fhsblackandgold.