A couple of weeks before the season began, a relaxed coach Tony Severino pointed out keys to his Rockhurst High School football season. After rattling off three or four, he ultimately settled on defense as the biggest.
So far, so good.
With its offense crippled by a handful of early turnovers, the Hawklets’ defense clamped down on East St. Louis (Ill.) for a 20-12 season-opening victory on Friday night at Rockhurst.
East St. Louis’ potential game-tying drive ended when Harrison Lanning intercepted Demus Jones’ fourth-down pass in Hawklets territory.
“You saw the sign of a good team,” Severino said. “We were beaten early — I think their speed shocked us a little bit — but we bounced right back and took over the game.”
East St. Louis, winner of the Illinois Class 7 state title in 2008, marched down the field on its opening 72-yard drive with relative ease, finishing it off with a 13-yard touchdown pass from Jones to Daniel Williams.
That, however, marked the end of its offensive highlight reel.
Rockhurst forced three turnovers, recorded three sacks and allowed just 61 yards after the game-opening drive. Jones completed three of 16 passes after halftime.
Its stingy defensive performance allowed Rockhurst to overcome a sluggish performance, marred by four turnovers, including three first-half fumbles.
Those turnovers spoiled effective drives and an especially good first two quarters from starting quarterback Ahmad Tyler. He won the starting job this week and promptly threw a 35-yard touchdown pass to Luke Arbanas on his first attempt of the game.
Tyler finished 11 for 16 with 128 yards and zero turnovers. Trey Vickers, Rockhurst’s No. 2 quarterback, completed his only passing attempt of the night — again to Arbanas — for a 10-yard score that gave the Hawklets a 20-6 lead in the fourth quarter.
In a reversal of typical fashion, Rockhurst let its passing game set up the run. Severino, who began his 30th season with the Hawklets on Friday night, predicted his offense would rely on the running game early.
Perhaps that’s why Rockhurst managed only seven points in the first half. Without bruising fullback Giamo Jackson-Carter, who sat out because of an undisclosed injury, Rockhurst rushed for 38 yards in 17 carries in the opening half.
The Rockhurst offensive line, led by Nebraska-commit Zach Hannon, found its way after the break. The Hawklets capped two time-killing scoring drives with touchdowns and built a 20-6 cushion.
“We had plenty of opportunities early, and then their defense stepped up in the second (half),” East St. Louis coach Darren Sunkett said. “We just didn’t do the right things to win a ballgame. Our timing was off all night.”
Connor Kuhlmann, Rockhurst’s leading rusher with 65 yards, scored on a 7-yard run, ending a string of seven consecutive rushing plays opening the third quarter. After a three-and-out from East St. Louis, Arbanas had his second touchdown of the night.
The Hawklets ran 25 of the 29 plays called in the third quarter.
“That’s the name of the game,” Severino said. “We need our running game to carry the load and kill the clock, and that’s exactly what you saw them do in the second half.”