By MIKE SHAFFER
For the Star Beacon
Jefferson football coach Jimmy Henson knew there were many questions surrounding his football team this year. In the first half of the Falcons opener with LaBrae he was not getting the answers he was hoping for.
Though Jefferson did play a much better second half, miscues early in the game were too much to overcome as the Falcons fell to LaBrae 15-14 in season opening action Friday night at Falcon Pride Stadium.
“We know we have a young team,” Henson said. “That’s the game of football, there’s going to be mistakes made, the key is that we learn from them and work to eliminate them going forward.”
The Falcons were penalized nine times for 83 yards, had a pass intercepted in the red zone and were unable to execute in some key situations. In spite of all that they were an onside kick recovery away from pulling off a dramatic come from behind win.
“This was not an easy opener,” LaBrae coach John Armeni said about his All-American conference opponent. “Jefferson has an outstanding program, and they gave us all we could handle tonight. Coach Henson does a great job year in and year out. We’re very happy to get out of here with a win tonight.”
After a scoreless first quarter, the Vikings pinned Jefferson at their own five yardline thanks to a great punt.
“Special teams and our defense tonight we huge,” Armeni said. “Being able to establish field position was a real plus”
The Viking defense did not allow a yard and forced Falcon punter, Cole Erdel, to stand against the back of the end zone. Erdel stepped on the back line for a safety to give LaBrae a 2-0 lead.
After the Falcon defense forced a Viking punt, the Jefferson offense went on a drive that looked destined to give them the lead.
Starting at the their own 46, Ryan Zindash sparked the offense by going 26 yards on three carries. Jerimiah Knight also had a carry for 19 yards along the way as the Falcons marched to the Viking 8.
The drive would stall then. First an illegal procedure penalty moved them back 5 yards. On second and goal, Zindash was stopped for just a one-yard gain. Then on the next play Erdel was intercepted by Justin Jenkins.
“That was my fault,” said Henson. “They had some big backs back there, and the kid made a play that really cost us.”
Jenkins, also the Viking quarterback, raced from the goal line 60 yards back with the return.
“I tell people Justin is a good duel threat quarterback,” Armeni said. “He’s a heck of a defensive back as well.”
Following the interception, the Vikings needed just six plays to go 40 yards. Jamal Dawkins capped the drive with a 13 yard touchdown to the endzone.
LaBrae took an 8-0 lead to the lockerroom at the half.
Mistakes plagued Jefferson to open the second half. Henson elected to go for a fourth and one, trying to spark his offense. The snap from center to Erdel was high, resulting in a broken play and loss of seven yards giving the ball back to LaBrae.
The Vikings offense struck late in the third quarter, as once again Dawkins broke free, this time on a 34-yard run to pay dirt.
“Jamal is a very talented kid,” Armeni said. “He has tremendous speed in the open field and can be a very elusive back. His big play making ability was huge for us tonight.”
Trailing 15-0 late in the third quarter, however, the Falcons began to fight back. Starting from their own 30, Erdel who was 0 for 5 with an interception in the first half completed a pair of passes for 33 yards. The big one was a 28-yard completion to Knight giving Jefferson a first down at the Vikings 14.
Three plays later Erdel called his own number and took the ball into the endzone on third down and three from the seven to get the Falcons on the board.
“Cole is a very athletic kid and he found a way to make a play for us there,” Henson said.
The point after was no good leaving the score at 15-6.
“We did have a conversation about going for two in that situation,” Henson said. “But if we make the kick, it’s a one possession game.”
The Falcon defense did it’s job to keep it a one possession game, but it was the special teams that really shined.
With four minutes remaining Joe Jackson blocked the punt off the foot of Viking punter Charles Pifer. Jackson recovered the football setting the Falcons up at the LaBrae 32.
“It was an all out block all the way,” Henson said. “What else could we do in that situation?”
After the big play on special teams, Erdel went back to work. He connected with James Jackson for an 11-yard gain. Then following a penalty, found Derek Parker in the back corner of the endzone for a 32-yard touchdown pass. Parker was blanketed with coverage but still managed to make the grab in heavy traffic. Erdel ran in a two-point conversion and the Falcons were within a point at 15-14.
“The second half some guys decided it was time to step up and start making some plays for us” Henson said. “Our defense tonight was great and we ran the ball effectively. But it took some plays to get us back in it and that’s what we got.”
The Falcons could not dial up a play to stop the clock in the fourth quarter, though. LaBrae recovered the ensuing on-side kick attempt and were able to pick up a first down before going into victory formation.
Shaffer is a freelance writer from Ashtabula.