BY TIM BIRNEY
Valley Sports Report
ATHENS — After a disappointing first half, Athens coach Jack Young watched his team’s furious second-half rally fall just short in a 34-32 loss to Midd-West, but saw his team gain some much-needed confidence.
“My hope is we can build on the confidence we built (in the second half). We definitely gained some confidence in every aspect of the game.
“We just need to continue to work hard, and we’re bound to get some breaks,” said Young. “We’re still searching for a few breaks here and there, but they’ll come if we continue to work hard.”
After the game, Young blamed the first-half performance on his team not being mentally ready to play, but after watching film and time to reflect says there were other contributing factors.
It was a little bit of everything. I can’t put the blame on one thing,” said Young.
“It’s about putting the pieces together, too. We lost two starters on defense in the first half Friday night, and we’re still trying to find answers for other guys who are hurt,” he noted. “We are averaging about one injury per week, and for the most part those injuries have been for multiple games.
“I honestly don’t think we were ourselves, character-wise in the first half. We really hadn’t backed down from a fight all season, but early on it didn’t seem like we were up to taking punches.
“We came out in the second half and showed a lot of fight, and showed a lot of character,” continued Young. “We were far from perfect, we still turned the ball over, and made some of the other mistakes we’re making, and we were a little out-manned in places.
“We have some young guys out there, and it’s not so much that they’re young, it’s that they haven’t played a whole lot of football. It’s not even like they can count on their junior high experience.
“No one is making excuses. These guys have had some good weeks of practice, and it’s not like they’re not putting in the effort,” added Young. “We will keep working hard.”
The first half on offense was only marginally better than on defense for the Wildcats.
“The first half really boiled down — on both sides of the ball — to us dealing with (Midd-West’s) physicality on the line-of-scrimmage,” said Young. “They are a big football team, and their middle linebacker was as good as we’ve played against all season.
“We weren’t very successful running the ball in the first,” noted Young. “We did have a little success throwing the ball, but, boy oh boy, did we take a lot of heat. Mason (Lister) earned his keep Friday night, he took a licking.”
Young said the reason for the second-half improvement was two-fold.
“We had to make some adjustments in our pass protection,” he said. “Midd-West was bringing multiple pressure wide on us, and we were having difficulty handling it. A lot of our protection is based on slide protection … they were bringing two guys on the edge, and our protection is only set to handle one guy, so we had to make a little bit of an adjustment.
“Other than that, it was a toughness thing,” he noted. “They were as aggressive as we’ve seen all year. We’ve played some aggressive teams, but we haven’t had teams that had the physicality these guys did.
“Mason took a couple pops in the second half, but nothing compared to the first half,” added Young.
Offensively, freshman QB Mason Lister threw for a career-high 278 yards and four TDs, including nine completions to senior wideout Keegan Rude for 167 yards and four TDs. Sophomore Shayne Reid rushed for 129 yards and had three catches for 39 yards. The large majority of the offensive output came in the second half.
“Once we had a little too much success throwing the ball, especially to Keegan (Rude), (Midd-West) took a guy out of box. Once that happened, we had to run the ball, and that’s when we had success running it.
“With Mason having such a strong arm, we are able to spread the field vertically more than we have in years, and that helps us a great deal,” noted Young. “Our screen game, which we’ve been working on hard for the last three weeks, worked real well, and that was another thing to help alleviate their pressure.
“It was a little bit of an adjustment, and a little bit of a challenge that got everything clicking on Friday night,” added Young. “I couldn’t be happier offensively in the second half.”
Young praised the play of Rude and Reid.
“Keegan is a pretty talented kid,” said Young. He’s a senior and he’s played a lot of football … he’s really come on in the last three or four games. There’s not a team that won’t game-plan against him now.
“He’s so big and so strong. He attacks the ball in the air, and he had a couple plays Friday night that were special,” noted Young. “Those are the kinds of plays that build confidence in the whole team. Guys want to play hard when you get those kinds of effort.
“As for Reid, it didn’t matter what he was doing offensively, whether he was lined up in the I, or he was spread out wide and we were trying to throw some passes to him, his effort was off the charts,” he said.
“His effort … I would love to know his YAC (yards after contact) numbers, but I would wager at least half his total yardage was after contact,” added Young. “He just kept going … if was a 4-yard run, he was gaining 7 because of his effort. It was a pretty special night for him.”
The Wildcats defense was riddled for 27 points in the first half, but only gave up one score in the second half.
“It hurts to think about, (Midd-West’s) lone points in the second half, plain and simply, came because one of our defenders slipped and fell. For years, we’ve told our guys in the secondary, there is no excuse for falling. Unfortunately, it happens.
“That’s only points they scored in the second half,” noted Young. “And, one of their scores in the first half, a freshman in the secondary missed an assignment. The freshman was replacing an injured senior starter and hasn’t seen a lot of time on the varsity field,
“We lost two starters to injury Friday night. At one point in the first half, we had seven freshmen and sophomores on the field defensively.
“We talked after the game, and I pointed out what we’re capable of if we execute. They were gang-tackling against the best part of the Midd-West offense, which is their tackle-to-tackle running game,” added Young. “We hung in there, (MIdd-West) didn’t punt one time in the first half, and they punted five or six times in the second half.”
Young said the offensive and defensive success in the second half go hand-in-hand.
“I truly believe defensively a lot of it stemmed from confidence. When our offense was making big plays, that confidence rises defensively, and we were making some great plays.”
Young said the Wildcats special teams “wasn’t bad.”
“We were missing a couple guys, including sophomore Tom Forrest, who is on our PAT team, and we were missing (kicker) Aaron Lane.
“We missed our first extra-point, and on one of our two-point conversions late in the game (Midd-West) switched up what they were doing defensively and made a play,” said Young. “Those were big plays in the game.
“Shayne Reid was kicking off, and he did a good job, but that takes him out of coverage. Other than the first one, Shayne did a fine job on extra points. He has a heck of a foot.
“At halftime, we asked our freshman who was up to the challenge on kick-off team,” noted Young. “In the second half, we threw a bunch of different freshmen out there, and for the most part, they were up to the challenge — and that’s inspiring to everybody.
“I can’t complain about special teams,” he added.
GRADE: B-. “In a loss, it’s hard to give anything higher than a C, but we were definitely in that C+ / B- range based solely on our second-half performance.”
IN PHOTO: Athens coach Jack Young.
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