Daniel still winless heading into region

By Rocky Nimmons

ANDERSON – The preseason is over, and the Daniel Lions have yet to[cointent_lockedcontent]

John Bolton/ Daniel running back Stephon Kirksey breaks free for a gain against Westside on Friday night.

John Bolton/
Daniel running back Stephon Kirksey breaks free for a gain against Westside on Friday night.

post a victory after a 38-7 shellacking at the hands of the Westside Rams on Friday night.

That is not something the Lions, their fans or their coaching staff are used to. Not since head coach Randy Robinson’s first year at the helm has Daniel started the year 0-3.

But as the saying goes, “what does not kill us makes us stronger.” The Lions are not dead yet, and the year will begin anew this Friday when the Columbia blue and gold start region play, traveling to West-Oak play the Warriors.

Now is when the games reall start to count, Robinson says, and the results from here on out will mean everything to how the Lions’ current crop of seniors will be remembered in years to come.

“I hope our seniors realize it’s now or never,” he said after Friday’s game. “We have some young guys pushing for playing time. I hope our seniors rise up.”

The Lions were outmanned against the Rams, who played like a contender for the AAAA crown this season. From the start it was an uphill battle for Robinson’s troops. The Lions did start off with some fire, but as the game progressed it was obvious it was going to be a long night for the visitors.

“We have no excuses,” Robinson said. “Westside played real well up front. We were able to get some stuff on them early, and they made good adjustments and then clogged us up front. Then we became pretty much one-dimensional, and they got a couple of opportunities on our quarterback. Westside is a good football team. They are going to have a shot at winning it all.”

As painful as it was to watch for the blue and gold faithful, the game will go a long way to improving the Lions as region play gets underway, according to Robinson.

“We told them before we got over here we were going to be able to evaluate more after tonight than we have been able to all year, because we played a good football team,” he said. “In every phase of the game, they are really good. So now I have film to show them, and I can say ‘hey, you got away with being average the first two games, but against this group you got exposed.’ Hopefully we can correct the mistakes before the region starts.”

The biggest bug-a-boo Daniel will have to overcome as the season wears on is the amount of turnovers they have produced. Robinson knows that is a huge concern.

“Turnovers have been the story of this season,” he said. “We are minus-nine right now. We can’t win like that.”

The game with the Rams started with the Lions creating a turnover of their own. On Westside’s second snap, a good lick on Westside quarterback Jackson Williamson popped the ball loose, with Daniel’s Avery Conrad recovering for his team and giving his offense the ball at the Lions’ 31-yard line.

The tone of the game was set in the trenches, and that was the most glaring difference as Westside dominated. On first down, Robinson called an end around to Will Swinney, and it was stuffed as the Rams got penetration, blowing the play up for a four-yard loss. Daniel running back Stephon Kirksey did run hard all night and picked up a couple on the next snap, but it was obvious the running game was going to have its work cut out for it.

Robinson elected to test the air on play three and Batson faded back and spotted Swinney streaking across the middle and hit the junior receiver for a 15-yard gain, giving the Lions a first down.

Swinney was hammered on the tackle, something the young man got accustomed to as the night wore on. Swinney, however was the bright spot of the game for Daniel, as he ended the game with more than 100 yards receiving.

“It is kind of interesting how they played their coverage — he suddenly became the guy,” Robinson said of Swinney. Every time you turned around, he was open on the read. So he had a lot of catches and had a good night. It was not just him. We had some guys that ran some good routes to get him open.”

After the catch and the movement of the chains, the drive fizzled and the Lions punted the ball away four plays later.

Westside sent its offense on the field with the ball at the 34-yard line and the Rams were ready to shake off the early turnover and push the ball upfield. After 11 plays, the Rams pounded the ball into the end zone on a two-yard plunge by Jackson with 5:55 to play in the first quarter. Westside elected to pour it on and went for a two-point conversion following the touchdown, but Daniel defensive coordinator Jeff Fruster’s unit was having none of it. Jackson called a play where he tossed the ball to tight end Antonio Lomax, but. Daniel’s defense was just too tough and stopped him short, making the score 6-0.

After the kickoff, the Lions went to work and produced a nice 13-play drive that covered 61 yards. The only problem was the Lions needed 80 and came up short on a fourth-down conversion at the Westside 19-yard line. The series saw Swinney picking up 10 yards on a Batson pass and Kirksey blasting ahead for 18. Senior Dante Gilliard contributed with a 17-yard catch from Batson, but the series ended when Batson tried to go for it all, forcing a pass into the end zone on fourth and five from the Westside 19.

The big stop fired up the Rams, and they immediately mounted an 81-yard drive for a score. The series lasted only six plays. The Daniel defense was shell-shocked early, as on the third snap, Jackson connected on a 41-pass to Quinn Wright. Three plays later, Wright finished the drive when he found a seam and raced 36 yards for a touchdown. The Rams again went for two, and Wright’s number was called again with 11:54 to play in the half, making the score 14-0 Rams.

Daniel went three and out following the kick, and a great return had Westside back in business at the Lion 40. It was beginning to get ugly for Robinson’s team as the Rams again produced a scoring drive. In nine plays, the Rams were in for a touchdown. The Lions held on three plays inside the 2-yard line, but has hard as they hunkered down, on the fourth Wright found enough space to get in from a yard out. Westside kicker Chance Poore tacked on the PAT, and with 6:42 to play in the first half, the Lions were down 21-0.

The Lions dodged a bullet just before the half as Batson was picked off, giving the Rams the ball at their own 27. Westside drove the field again in 10 plays. With the clock winding down to intermission, the Rams had the ball at the Lions’ 1-yard line The Lion defense stiffened as time expired, turning Westside away without points.

The second half started with yet another Daniel turnover. Carter Groomes was back deep to return the opening kick, but took his eye off the ball and bobbled the pigskin, fumbling the ball away with the Rams recovering at the Lions’ 23-yard line.

“We fumbled the second-half kickoff. Come on, we are better than that,” Robinson said.

It only took Westside four plays to capitalize on the mistake when Jackson hit Lomax for a four-yard touchdown with only 1:27 played in the second half. Poore added the extra point, and the Rams were ahead 28-0.

The Rams added a 26-yard field goal two possessions later after a blocked punt. Taking over at the Daniel 11, the Lion defense stiffened and force the field goal try thanks to a big sack by Chris Barnes.

The Lions continued to make mistakes offensively when Batson was intercepted. Daniel’s defense held after the pick, forcing a Ram punt.

Taking over at the 26, the Lions put together their only scoring series of the night. The drive lasted 16 plays. Every inch was hard-earned as Swinney continued to find space when needed to keep the series alive. The receiver made three crucial catches for 10, nine and 30 yards, the latter for his first varsity touchdown. Rivers Sherrill added the PAT, and the Lions were on the board with 5:50 left to play.

The late score saved a shutout, but it seemed to anger the Rams, who answered with a four-play drive that went 80 yards. With only 44 seconds left Jackson slung a rainbow and connected with Matthew Martin for a 67-yard touchdown. The PAT was good to make the 38-7 final score.

Robinson said he had no hard feelings because Westside was still throwing deep with less than a minute to play.

“Absolutely not — it is our job to stop them,” he said. “If my cornerback does his job, it is probably an interception. He got lazy and he got beat. That will help us down the road.”

The Lions will begin region play at West-Oak this Friday. The Warriors lost 26-19 to Berea last Friday and are also winless on the season.

Robinson hopes this week will go better in practice than last week.

“We had a great Monday and Tuesday and then we dropped off Wednesday,” he said. “We didn’t even have a good walkthrough. How can you not have a good walkthrough? It has been a frustrating year, but in the meantime I still think we can turn it around. We have to be optimistic about it.”