Winning two games in a row is a bona fide streak, and the Sussex County Warhawks semi-pro football team accomplished just that by shutting out the Talbot County Warriors 21-0, on March 19.
“Every week we’re getting better. I can’t ask any more from my guys,” said Warhawks team owner Tina Dennis.
Scoring points is a good barometer for how well a team is playing, and the Warhawks have scored 48 points in their last two victories — as opposed to scoring only eight points in their first two losses.
The Warhawks recent success can be directly attributed to the play of quarterback Jason Rust. After floundering against the defending league champion Saints and the Raiders, Rust has emerged as a legitimate playmaker.
The past two weeks, Rust has thrown for 485 yards, four touchdowns, no interceptions, a 55 percent completion rating, and 20 yards per pass. In addition to moving the ball down the field for points, Rust also serves as the team punter. Rust averages a staggering 54.6 yards per punt, which only helps an already impressive defense pin down opponents deep in their own territory.
Against the Warriors, Rust was able to avoid the pass rush to complete key passes to keep the chains moving. In addition, the Warhawks receiving corps was able to maintain their concentration to catch several balls over the middle in traffic.
Warhawks receiver James Maddox led the team with five catches for a game-high 115 yards and one touchdown. The Warhawks were very effective in spreading the ball around to their other receivers, as well. Andre Matthews snagged three passes for 26 yards and a touchdown, while tight end/fullback Brian Walker chipped in by collecting three Rust passes for 82 yards.
The Warhawks displayed a bit of ingenuity early in the second quarter by completing a tight end-screen to Walker in which he rumbled for 53 yards. The long screen play set the Warhawks up for their first touchdown, which came through the air on a fade pass to Maddox.
“We’ve been working on some trick plays in practice and it paid off Saturday,” said Warhawks head coach Butch Yocum.
The Warhawks’ ability to utilize trick plays has kept their opponents on their heels but a sputtering running game has barred them from establishing a balanced offense.
“We’re just not running the ball effectively enough right now. We only ran the ball 17 times for 64 yards Saturday. To be successful we need more rushing attempts and more effective attempts on running downs,” said Yocum.
Coach Yocum explained that the running game hasn’t been as effective because of a lack of mobility by his linemen. “Our linemen just aren’t getting to the next level on running plays. They are responsible for the first level, but have to chip off to get to those linebackers,” said Yocum.
As the Warhawks head into the bye week and prepare for the Saints next week, coach Yocum will stress the importance of running the ball to his team. “I believe we can run the ball on the Saint’s — nobody else thinks they can, but that is because they get behind or lose yards on running downs forcing them to pass the ball exclusively. You don’t see pro football teams only passing the ball — you have to have balance to win, in any league,” said Yocum.
With the running game under construction and the passing game in the capable hands of Rust, the Warhawks must concentrate on maintaining their tough defense. The Warhawks allowed the Saints to score 37 unanswered points in their season opener.
“Right now were going to take it easy this week to get everyone healthy for next week’s game. Our starting cornerback Leroy Jenkins and strong safety Sheron Dickens didn’t play last week because of injuries so it will be good to get them back,” said Yocum.
The Warhawks were forced to make some changes in their secondary following the early-season loss to the Saints. “Darnell (Strand) got beat for a couple touchdowns against the Saints earlier this season so we moved him from cornerback to running back. He was an all-state football player at corner and running back but he’s getting older and it’s better if he plays running back,” said Dennis.
The Warhawks secondary took so many hits to injuries that head coach Yocum was forced to play at free safety. “From time-to-time I’ll get in there for a few plays, either on defense or special teams — whatever is needed,” said Yocum.
The Warhawks defensive front seven remains the focal point of their defensive success. Captain linebacker Tremond Conway wrecked havoc on the Warrior offense as he collected eight tackles, two sacks, one forced fumble, and a safety. The Warhawks defensive pressure caused five sacks and was able to contain the Warriors to 180 total yards.
Defensive end Troy Haynes put the Warhawks over the top, returning a fumble 65 yards for a touchdown. “That was probably the funniest play because Haynes was huffing and puffing all the way to the end zone. He had to take off a couple plays after that one,” said Dennis.
With a week off and players resting, attention turns to the final stretch of the season. The Warhawks still must play each team in their division one more time and three wins will get them into the playoffs. Having beaten the Kent Co. Fire and Talbot Co. Warriors by sizable margins earlier this season already, only the New Castle Saints and Raiders stand in their way towards playoff contention. The Warhawks lost to the Raiders by only four points last time, and to make the playoffs they must beat the Raiders by at least five points.
The Warhawks travel to New Castle April 2 to play the Saints in what is expected to be a hard played game.
“The Raiders coaches acknowledged how much we have improved since the first time we played the Saints, so it should be a better played game,” said Yocum.