Daniel defense too much for 8th-ranked Seneca

By Bru Nimmons
Staff Reporter

SENECA — After giving Daniel a solid fight last season and jumping out to a 6-1 start this season, eighth-ranked Seneca entered Friday night’s rivalry game against the top-ranked Lions with an upset on their minds.

Daniel snuffed out those hopes quickly though, forcing two Bobcats fumbles on the first two times they touched the ball, allowing the Lions to pull ahead early. And with the Bobcats’ offense struggling, the Lions didn’t look back in a 41-3 win at Tom Bass Field.

“I’m so proud of this group as a whole,” Daniel head coach Jeff Fruster said. “We knew that this was going to be intense, but it was time for us to prove that we could give somebody our best shot instead of always being on the receiving end.”

Indeed, it was a strong effort in all facets of the game for the Lions (8-0, 3-0 Western 3A) as they outgained Seneca (6-2, 2-1) by more than 200 yards, and for the second straight week the Daniel defense looked like one of the state’s best.

If keeping a Seneca team that was averaging more than 40 points per game out of the end zone wasn’t impressive enough, the Lions’ pass rush picked up nine sacks on the night.

“We set the tone early, and (Daniel defensive coordinator Kirk Ellison) saw things that we could exploit,” Daniel linebacker Spencer Conn said. “We were able to take advantage of them.”

Conn was one of three Lions to pick up two or more sacks in the game, along with Myquan Geer and Jaedyn Young, leaving Seneca head coach David Crane dissatisfied with the play of his team up front.

“Most of that was just busts on our part,” Crane said. “We had guys blowing assignments and trying to do too much.”

Seneca’s problems started shortly after the opening kickoff, as Bobcat tailback Cade Eavenson was drilled by a Daniel defensive back at the tail end of a 17-yard run on the first play from scrimmage. Geer managed to recover the Seneca fumble, and the Lions’ offense took over at the Bobcat 36 yard line.

With the short field, the Lions got to work quickly, and the combination of some solid carries from runing back Tory Shaw and a couple grabs from Jaylen Brown-Wallace had the Lions in the red zone. There, Simons found Eli Merck crossing the field and Merck made his way to the end zone for a 19-yard score to put Daniel ahead 7-0 early.

The Bobcats lost the ball again on the ensuing kickoff as they were unable to come up with a perfectly placed kick by Daniel that was recovered by Graydon Nix, giving the Lions the ball inside the Seneca 20-yard line. Simons found Brown-Wallace three plays later, and the Lions led 14-0 with 7:26 left in the first quarter.

Seneca struggled to make any progress on its next possession, with Geer and Young bottling up Eavenson and a sack by Young leading to a Bobcat punt.

A 32-yard return from Gavin Batt had the Lions back inside the Seneca 15 before penalties and general ineffectiveness led to a 35-yard field goal from kicker Bruce Brown to boost the lead to 17-0 late in the first.

The Bobcats finally got moving on their final possesion of the quarter, making it down inside the Daniel 20. However, the Lions stopped them in their tracks, forcing a 35-yard field goal that Seneca kicker Nate Thorsland nailed to cut the lead to 17-3 heading to the second quarter.

The momentum seemed like it was going in Seneca’s favor early in the quarter with the Bobcats getting their first stop and forcing a turnover on downs as the Lions drove into Seneca territory.

However, Daniel reclaimed control just four plays later with safety Isaac Turner picking off a Jaxon Burnette pass. Two big passes from Simons to Brown-Wallace moved the Lions inside the 15, where running back Jarius Cleveland finished the drive with a six-yard touchdown run.

Things continued to sprial for Seneca on its next drive, as Conn and Young teamed up to sack Burnette on third down and force another punt.

Taking over in the final minutes of the first half, the Lions moved down the field behind consecutive catches from Misun “Tink” Kelley, including a slick one-handed grab to put the Lions inside the Seneca 20.

With just 33 seconds until halftime, Simons hit Brown-Wallace for a touchdown once again to put the speedy receiver at an even 100 yards on the night on six catches and give the Lions a 31-3 lead at the break.

A senior, Brown-Wallace was happy with his performance on the night, as well as his senior class’ perfect 4-0 record against the Bobcats.

“This rivalry is really big from rec ball all the way to high school,” he said. “Just being 4-0 against them is a big accomplishment for me.”

The Lions received the opening kickoff of the second half, but were quickly forced to punt.

The Daniel defense responded, with Geer sacking Burnette again, and the Lions almost added their second interception of the game on a pass that was dropped by linebacker Carson Chasteen.

Right after the stop, the Lions gave the ball right back to Seneca as Cleveland fumbled on a 12-yard run.

Coming back out on defense, Geer was a man possessed on the Bobcat possession, tackling Eavenson for a loss on first down and taking down Burnette on his own on second down. On third and 15, Geer and Young teamed up to sack Burnette again, and a rattled Burnette was unable to complete a fourth-down pass, giving the Lions the ball again.

Daniel didn’t waste the defensive stop, scoring on a 20-yard run by Ja’Kari Bennett to bump the lead to 38-3 with 3:14 left in the third.

Seneca once again turned it over on downs on its next possession after a sack by Qwentin Welborn, leading to a 35-yard field goal by Daniel’s Neil Cannon.

The Bobcats’ last gasps were put down by the Daniel defense, with Conn getting back-to-back sacks on a late Seneca possession to clinch the 41-3 win.

Even though the win put the Lions in the driver’s seat for the Western 3A region title, Fruster doesn’t want the Lions to become complacent over their final two regular-season games.

“Like I say every week, the next game is the biggest game of the year,” Fruster said.

Daniel will host Pendleton this Friday night, with opening whistle set for 7:30 p.m.