WESTON — No. 5 North Marion’s victory over No. 12 Lewis County was never in doubt on Friday in Weston, with the Huskies running up a 21-0 lead en route to a 35-8 win.
But NMHS coach Daran Hays didn’t hesitate for a second nor hold back a whiff in doubting both the merit and the meaning of Friday’s win, the Huskies’ fourth in a row.
“We played terrible,” Hays said bluntly. “We didn’t fire on all cylinders on any of the aspects of the ball.”
North Marion owned the scoreboard, running up a 21-0 lead midway through the second quarter, and dominated the stat sheet, outgaining Lewis 315-155. The Huskies were even in the turnover battle 1-1 — and their giveaway was hardly costly with Brody Hall throwing an interception just before the half — and picked up an extra possession with an onside kick recovery in the third quarter.
Essentially, every possible indicator from the game suggested a thorough, and borderline dominant, outing by the Huskies. And on first glance, it’s tempting to label Hays’ harsh critiques as curmudgeon-like nitpicking more than anything else.
And yet, even while North Marion (5-1) controlled the scoreboard, logged a solid 5.6 yards per play offensively, and stuffed Lewis’ Wing-T ground attack defensively, there were elements of the Huskies’ performance that continued to feel a bit off and persisted in appearing a bit wayward for a team ranked No. 5 in Class AA.
“Honestly — and this is an excuse we tell (our players) not to make and one we still have to figure out — but I think it’s really hard, with the atmosphere as different as it is right now, to have the typical roar and juices flowing of a typical Friday night,” Hays said. “I mean, it’s a louder, more exciting atmosphere sometimes at practice when we’re scrimmaging each other than we get on a Friday night with limited fan attendance, but that’s something we have to figure out, especially on road trips.
“We have to figure out a way to get ourselves motivated to play early in games and play well, because we’re just not very emotional (early). That was my challenge to them in the pregame talk, and we didn’t respond to that challenge for crap; I didn’t think we were very intense, I didn’t think we were very emotional and this is a really emotional game — you have to play it with excitement and intensity.”
North Marion’s offense, while effective overall, operated in fits and starts, similar to a laggy internet connection; the Huskies’ base run game — inside zone handoffs to its backs and run-pass option keepers by Hall — didn’t rev up until the second half, and Hall, similarly, never found an all-encompassing rhythm through the air. Gobs of penalties — NMHS accrued 15 penalties for 155 yards — didn’t help, although a handful-plus of those infractions were strongly disputed by the Huskies’ sideline as Hays eventually became exasperated by the officiating crew. North’s defense, meanwhile, straight-up destroyed Lewis’ rushing attack, with the Minutemen (3-4) totaling a mere 72 rush yards on 38 attempts (1.9 yds/carry), but a couple of second-quarter blips in coverage soured Hays’ overall assessment.
“I didn’t think we clicked offensively very well early,” Hays said, “and then defensively, I thought we tackled well and swarmed to the ball well, and we were really in-tune with the game plan as far as formation identification and pre-snap motions and things like that. But then I thought our pass defense was probably the worst we’ve had to date.”
Despite whatever flaws or issues showed through at times on both sides of the ball, North Marion rolled up to a 21-0 advantage with just over six minutes till the half, with Hall rushing for a 2-yard TD and then tossing a 39-yard TD to star wideout Tariq Miller before Hunter Kuhn scored a third TD on an 8-yard run.
The 21 straight points were kickstarted by the NMHS special teams, with the Huskies’ punt block unit forcing a botched punt attempt for the second-consecutive week; Cody Clevenger returned a blocked punt for a 14-yard TD last week at Chapmanville, and this time around, Casey Minor recovered a high snap by LCHS at the Minutemen 7 yard-line to set up Hall’s 2-yard run.
“We played well enough early on in the special teams game to build that lead with the hurried punt,” Hays said. “We kind of made our luck there with an errant snap on their end.”
The Minutemen trimmed the Huskies’ lead to 21-8 just before halftime when they abandoned their staple Wing-T run game and instead opted to go to the air with quarterback Bryant Zielinski. Zielinski, who completed eight of his nine passes and threw for 77 of his 82 yards in the first half, hit on several short passes and connected with Drew Cayton for a 30-yard hookup to propel a 16-play, 80-yard touchdown march he capped off via a 12-yard pass to Vincent Snuffer with 39 seconds until the half.
To start the second half, however, the Minutemen offense devolved into consecutive three-and-outs on its first two series, and by the time they got the ball for the their third drive, North Marion had scored planted back-to-back touchdowns to balloon its lead 35-8. First, Hall took off on a run-pass option keeper for a 36-yard TD run, and then, after the Huskies recovered an onside, he fired to tight end Garrett Conaway up the seam for 31 yards before scoring his third rushing TD of the game on a 5-yard run.
For the game, Hall rushed nine times for 76 yards and three TDs, while also completing 13-of-24 passes for 174 yards with a TD and an INT. Miller, who was once again a dynamo in the open field as evidenced by his catch-and-run 39-yard TD on a routine crossing pattern, recorded game-highs of seven catches for 101 yards and a score.
Defensively, Hays complimented the strong game by sophomore linebacker Tyler Curry, who led the Huskies with six tackles, a sack, and a pass deflection. Conaway, Chase Duckworth and Jake Cochran also tallied sacks.
North Marion 35, Lewis County 8
LCHS 0 8 0 0 — 8
NMHS 14 7 14 0 — 35
Records: Home Team, North Marion (5-1)
NM – Brody Hall 2-yard run (Malachi Funkhouser kick)
NM – Hall 39-yard pass to Tariq Miller (Funkhouser kick)
NM – Hunter Kuhn 8-yard run (Funkhouser kick)
LC – Bryant Zielinski 12-yard pass to Vincent Snuffer (Zielinski pass to Drew Cayton)
NM – Hall 36-yard run (Funkhouser kick)
NM – Hall 5-yard run (Funkhouser kick)
TEAM STATISTICS LC NM
Total first downs 11 14
by rush/pass/penalty 6/3/2 5/8/1
Rushing plays 38 32
net yards 72 141
yards per rush 1.9 4.4
Passes (comp/att/Int) 9/21/0 13/24/1
yards passing 83 174
Total plays 59 56
net yards 155 315
yards per play
RUSHING — North Marion: Brody Hall 9-76 3 TD, Hunter Kuhn 7-35 TD, Gavan Lemley 13-28, Casey Minor 2-1, Aaron Hoffman 1-1. Lewis County: Brayden Carder 3-25, Drew Cayton 8-24, Jaycob Smith 5-21, Johan Clem 10-15, Isaac Probst 2-5, Zachary Woody 1-(-1), Bryant Zielinski 8-(-14), TEAM 1-(-3).
PASSING — North Marion: Hall 13-24, 174 yards, TD, INT. Lewis County: Zielinski 9-21, 83 yards, TD.
RECEIVING — North Marion: Tariq Miller 7-101 TD, Garrett Conaway 2-39, Cole Malnick 3-26, Jakob Hunt 1-8. Lewis County: Cayton 3-39, Smith 3-16, Snuffer 1-12 TD, Will Kuhn 1-11, Woody 1-5.