Lovett has beaten four straight opponents from bigger classifications so it’s silly to suggest the Lions have a surprise element. Yet as sophomore Jay Harris went for 160 of his team’s 296 rushing yards in Lovett’s 28-7 trampling of St. Pius, it’s safe to say few expected that.
The state’s No. 2-ranked Class AA team beat the No. 2 AAA team by overland siege. Lovett (4-0) whipped St. Pius (3-1) at its own game in the first half, rushing 22 times for 212 yards on the way to a 28-0 lead. Senior Tyler Shiflett added two interceptions.
Although St. Pius stiffened in the second half, when Lovett was without injured junior quarterback Willie Candler, the Golden Lions could not catch up. They suffered three of their five turnovers in the final two quarters.
With wins over AAA Blessed Trinity, AAA Woodward Academy and AAAA Marist, Lovett swept its private school, non-region run. The Lions did not surprise themselves.
Last week’s double-overtime win at Marist boosted everybody’s confidence. “We knew we were going to do pretty good,” said senior running back Grant Haley, who added seven carries, 87 yards and two touchdowns. “We were coming off a big win last week.”
Don’t look at Lovett’s 5-1 edge in takeaways as the sign of a fluke.
When all their players were healthy in the first half, the Lions converted 5-of-6 third downs, Candler completed 8-of-9 passes for 81 yards and a score and the home team outgained the visitors 293-107.
The visitors took the opening kickoff and rushed for 60 yards on that drive, yet St. Pius would miss a 37-yard field goal. That was it for first-half highlights.
There were signs of St. Pius over-respecting the passing prowess of Candler, and while he didn’t disappoint in less than two quarters before he sprained a left ankle badly enough that he may miss future action, the Lovett running game was the real deal.
Plus, the Lions made plays.
Lovett converted three first downs on its first possession, and scored first when – on third-and-4 from the St. Pius 45-yard-line – Haley was jammed on a sweep, bounced all the way across the field and scored easily.
“I’d love to tell you that’s coaching and we work on it all the time, but that’s just that kid making a play,” said Lovett coach Mike Muschamp. “Pius is such a good defense they over-pursued to get to him and he reversed the field and there was nobody over there.
“I thought our offensive line did a good job against a superior defensive line for the fourth week in a row.”
Senior Ian Flinn muffed the ensuing pooch kickoff for St. Pius, and Lovett took over at the St. Pius 43.
Candler’s 9-yard completion on third-and-8 kept that drive alive, and Lovett took a 14-0 lead on the first play of the second quarter when Candler – on third-and-goal from the 5 — rolled right, stopped, and threw middle to senior wideout Grant Towles for a score.
The teams traded punts after the Towles score, and then Shiflett intercepted a deep pass attempt by St. Pius junior quarterback Joey Connors.
The Lions didn’t need to convert any third downs this time. Haley scored on a 6-yard draw play with 4:59 left in the half to cap a methodical seven-play, 67-yard drive. That’s when Candler was hurt.
Lovett’s fourth touchdown was keyed by another third down conversion, as Harris went 54 yards down the left sideline on third-and-2 from the St. Pius 37. He snuck inside an outside blitz on the next snap for a 9-yard run score with 1:09 left in the half.
Harris had 108 rushing yards in the first half on 10 carries, and Haley added 78 yards.
With Candler on the sideline, Lovett became more one-dimensional in the second half, and punted soon after the third quarter began. The Lions did nothing with a St. Pius fumble, and in fact gave the ball back as St. Pius senior linebacker Daniel Crochet forced Harris to fumble, and junior Dalton Wilson recovered.
St. Pius pulled within 28-7 on Jack Pelt’s 86-yard run down the right sideline in the third quarter, and before long the Lions were marching again. Wilson lost his second fumble, however, to thwart that drive in the waning seconds of the third period.
Lovett again did nothing with the ball, but once more St. Pius was turned back by a turnover as Shiflett tipped a long pass away from Pelt up in the air and pulled it in with about eight minutes left in the game.
The Lions salted away the game later on that possession sophomore punter Cole Taylor ran for a first down on fourth-and-2 rather than kicking.
“We called that,” Muschamp said. “They lined up that way the play before, and we felt like we had a chance.”
St. Pius limited Lovett – which has its highest ranking since 1989 – to 92 yards of offense in the second half, but turnovers did in the Golden Lions. Also, after three efficient games passing on limited attempts, Connors – who barely practiced this week because of a leg injury – completed just 1-of-8 passes with two interceptions.
St. Pius – 0 0 7 0 – 7
Lovett – 7 21 0 0 – 28
L – Grant Haley 45 run (Cole McGowan kick)
L – Grant Towles 5 pass from Willie Candler (McGowan kick)
L – Haley 6 run (McGowan kick)
L – Jay Harris 9 run (McGowan kick)
SPX – Jack Pelt 86 run (Thomas O’Leary kick)