GREENSBURG — It was almost as if Eastern Hancock head coach Jim O’Hara had to be reminded Friday’s night 37-6 victory at South Decatur was his first win as the Royals’ leading man.
But it wasn’t because the win didn’t matter to him, he said, it’s because he already feels ingrained in the Eastern Hancock program.
“Here’s the thing,” O’Hara said. “When you start conditioning in April and then May and June, July, August, and then you lose a game; it’s seems like we’ve been at this thing for a long time, which we have. So I’m more excited for the kids than myself. It’s not about me. It’s about them and how well they played in earning the victory.”
And they did earn it, especially senior running back Cooper Henderson, who was given a heavier workload Friday night after being limited with back spasms during last week’s 34-6 loss against Northeastern.
Henderson was a one-man show at times for the Royals Friday night. He ran for 83 yards on 11 carries and a touchdown, caught three balls for 93 yards and touchdown and also served as the team’s kicker and punter.
“The back spasms were really limiting him,” O’Hara said. “He didn’t feel confident last week. Tonight he did, and it showed.”Henderson certainly looked exceptional all game, but the Royals offense as a whole wasn’t exactly flawless from start to finish. Despite the wide margin of victory, Eastern Hancock struggled initially to capitalize on some early opportunities.
The Royals’ opening drive began as O’Hara had probably hoped when he was game-planning during the week. Henderson was plowing through Cougars’ defenders ripping off large chunks of real estate, including one 26-yard scamper.
Then, senior quarterback Austin Lacy connected with sophomore Devin Denny for an 18-yard grab to put the Royals inside the Cougars seven yard line.
That, however, was when the Cougar hit a wall. A combination of Henderson and senior Bryce Spegal were kept out of the endzone on four straight carries, forcing the Royals to turn the ball over on downs.
The Royals’ second drive suffered a similar outcome. Shortly after Lacy connected on a 28-yard pass to Denny, disaster struck in the form of fumble. Lacy couldn’t handle a shotgun snap, and for the second consecutive drive, the Royals could not produce points after getting inside the red zone in the Mid-Indiana Football Conference affair.
But as the old saying goes, the third time’s a charm. After a short Cougars’ punt provided excellent field position, Lacy and the Royals offense were finally able to break through. After a third down eight-yard run by Spegal kept the drive alive, Lacy rolled out right and connected on a 16-yard touchdown pass to Denny in the front corner of the endzone to give Eastern Hancock a 7-0 lead.
And from there it was mostly smooth sailing. A major reason for the Royals’ success Friday night was their aggressive defense, which at times didn’t let the Cougars running backs find room to breathe, let alone gain significant yardage.
After allowing more than 200 yards on the ground last week at the hands of Northeastern, O’Hara and his defensive coordinator Clayton Schultz decided they wanted to put a jolt in their defenders. Their game plan: Blitz. And blitz often.
“The plan was to get these guys coming down hill. Sometimes you have to blitz them to get them to do that. So we wanted them to think less and play harder and aggressive. I thought the kids flew to the ball extremely well,” O’Hara said
The plan worked, as the Royals held the Cougars rushing attack to 110 yards on 46 carries, or about 2.39 yards per carry. One Royal who particularly took off with his coaches’ game plan was senior linebacker Logan Splater, who while also giving the Royals their second score of the game on a safety, provided the highlight of the night.
On the first play from scrimmage in the second half, Splater burst through the Cougars’ offensive line and jumped in front of a pitch from South Decatur quarterback Tristin Ralph and returned it for an 18-yard touchdown. Splater was in the Cougars’ backfield so fast, it looked like he knew what play had been called.
“It’s not every day you see a kid intercept a pitch like that,” O’Hara said. “I’ve never seen anything like that before. That was fun.”
Splater’s exceptional effort Friday night was especially gratifying for O’Hara, who had decided to let Lacy handle quarterback duties by himself instead of platooning him with Splater. Splater isn’t finished playing quarterback, O’Hara said, but he was pleased with the way the senior responded to having a little less on his plate.
The drive after Splater’s safety, the Royals’ offense got rolling, largely on the back of Henderson. After a short kickoff, Henderson again put Eastern Hancock inside the Cougars’ 20-yard line, this time with a 23-yard run. A few plays later, he punched in a three-yard touchdown, extending the Royals’ lead to 16-0.
It didn’t take long for Henderson and the Royals to strike again, either. On the Royals very next drive, with only a little more than minute remaining in the half, the elusive Henderson took in a about 15-yard pass from Lacy, made a few defenders miss, and ran all the way to paydirt, giving the Royals a 23-0 lead. It wasn’t the final score of the game, but it was the dagger that sealed the Cougars’ fate.
The Cougars battled hard for the first and most of the second quarter trying to keep pace with the Royals, but a slim roster and a devastating heat began taking their toll. Injuries plagued South Decatur all night. The game had to be paused at least five times on behalf of a Cougars player on the ground.
O’Hara thought they played courageously despite their limited ranks.
“I think they had at least eight guys going both way, and the heat was really tough tonight. They played a great game.”
Fortunately for O’Hara and the Royals, it wasn’t good enough. The Royals added a couple more scores in the second half before pulling a large portion of their starters. The Cougars did manage to get into the end zone, putting an end to the Royals’ bid for a shutout, before the bizarre finish.
With a little more than two minutes left and the Royals leading 37-6, the lights went out in the stadium. After about 15 minutes, the officials and coaches decided the game should be called.
“I’m very proud of the players tonight,” O’Hara said. “We learned a lot from Northeastern last week. They took it us. And I’m just proud of the way these kids came out and responded.”
Eastern Hancock 37, South Decatur 6
EH (1-1, 1-0 MIFC) 7 16 14 0 — 37
SD (1-1, 0-1 MIFC) 0 0 0 6 — 6
EH — Denny, 16-yard catch from Lacy (Henderson kick) 0:45
EH — Splater, safety, 4:20
EH — Henderson, 3-yard carry (Henderson kick) (2:58)
EH — Henderson, 65-yard catch from Lacy (Henderson kick) 1:14
EH — Splater, 18-yard fumble return (Henderson kick) 11:49
EH — Spegal, 25-yard run (Henderson kick) 9:27
SD — Helms 6-yard catch from Ralph (run failed) 6:15
First downs: 8 8
Rushes-yards: 34-164 46-110
Passing yards: 155 24
Comp-Att-Int: 6-8-0 3-9-2
Fumbles-lost: 2-1 2-2
Penalties-yards: 4-45 6-28
Rushing: Spegal 13-97, Henderson 11-83, Muegge, 3-17, Fields 1-5, Lewis 1-(-12), Lacy 5-(-26)(EH) Allen 6-38, Helms 14-29, Martin: 8-19, Ralph 5-11, Canady 5-7, Ortman 7-3, Myers: 1-3 (SD)
Passing: Lacy 6-7-155, Lewis 0-1-0 (EH) Ortman 1-3-13, Ralph 2-6-11 (SD)
Receiving: Henderson 3-93, Denny 3-62 (EH) Helms 2-17, Canady 1-13 (SD)