OAKWOOD — It wasn’t quite Elway and “The Drive” but it was just as sweet for the West Hall High football team.
In the coming weeks, the Spartans might look back on Friday night’s 21-3 victory over Pickens and point to a single series in the third quarter as the point where it started its Class AAA playoff push.
Marquise Stephens caught a 22-yard touchdown pass, ran for a 39-yard score and accounted for 111 yards of total offense, as West Hall used a balanced attack to open the season 2-0. The Spartans already have matched their victory total from last season and there are still eight games to go...at least.
But isn’t it a little early to even be thinking about postseason?
“No,” said Stephens, a senior. “We’re working as hard as we can and doing whatever we need to do to reach the playoffs. We think we can get there.”
For a team that went 2-8 in 2007, early-season momentum means a lot. In Mike Newton’s second year as head coach, West Hall has morphed into an offense that likes to run and likes to pass. The Spartans rushed for 84 yards, and Shunquez Stephens threw for 139 yards and two scores.
The Spartans were stingy on defense as well. They held Pickens (0-1) to just 50 total yards in the second half, as West Hall took control with a clock-eating drive on its second possession of the third quarter.
The Spartans went 96 yards on 10 plays in four minutes and 18 seconds, dominating the time of possession in the period. West Hall had the ball for 7:49 compared to 4:11 for the Dragons.
“We worked pretty hard in practice this week,” said senior Kyle Weatherby, who had the only fumble recovery of the game. “We weren’t physical enough last week (in a 28-27 victory over East Jackson), and our coaches let us know about it. We worked on getting lower to the ground on the line and just being more physical. We didn’t want them to push us around. We weren’t going to let up.”
For the most part, West Hall did the bullying. Pickens’ lone points came on a 14-yard field goal from Gonzalo Solario on the Dragons’ first possession. That drive accounted for 68 of the team’s 90 total yards.
“We still have a long way to go, but I was particularly impressed with the improvement we made on defense from Week 1 to Week 2,” Newton said. “Our coaches talked to our kids about being more physical and holding their ground. They all did a great job.”
West Hall answered Pickens’ opening score with a seven-play, 77-yard march that ended when Shunquez Stephens hit brother Marquise on a 22-yard scoring pass.
“I saw him rolling out and that he was in trouble,” Marquise Stephens said. “I knew I needed to help him and get open. Luckily I was able to get by my man and Shunquez put it in there for me.”
The sophomore quarterback struck again when he hit Rodney Gibson for a 17-yard score with eight minutes left in the first half for a 13-3 lead. Senior kicker Scott Eicher was perfect on extra points.
Marquise Stephens did most of his damage in the second half with 51 yards rushing. It was a scheme that West Hall’s spread offense forced in the first half.
“They were dropping everyone back in coverage in the first half, and we came out knew we would be able to run in the ball in the second half,” Newton said. “They were blitzing from the outside to try to get to our quarterback and we countered with a pretty good running game.”
Pickens didn’t do itself any favors. The Dragons committed 16 penalties for 140 yards.
“They hurt themselves but so did we,” Newton said. “Hopefully that’s just season-opening stuff.”