It was originally thought that to host a playoff game and gain a first-round bye in the Delaware State Football Tournament, Indian River would have to go undefeated.
But following their 21-9 loss to Sussex Central, the Indians capped off their season by winning their last two games, over Seaford and Smyrna, to earn a week of rest and home game in the playoffs in what Head Coach Jim Bunting called a “second chance.”
Indian River scored 28 unanswered points, downing their division rival 28-3 on Nov. 12 to secure a home game and a first-round bye.
Indian River donned their new-look offense for the second week in a row with Nic Kmetz manning the helm at quarterback and Eric Givans playing wide receiver. Both players have excelled in their new roles and relied on each other in both of the last two wins.
Kmetz went 6-12, for 92 yards and two touchdown passes (his fourth TD pass in two games), against Smryna and Givans has emerged as a dangerous receiving option alongside Josh Dean.
They’ve complimented each other well thus far and give Kmetz tall targets to hit. In two games, Givans has caught nine passes for 141 yards and two touchdowns, while Dean caught four passes for 82 yards and two touchdowns.
Givans snared four passes for 63 yards against Smyrna, which included the go-ahead 22-yard touchdown reception in the second quarter that gave Indian River a 7-3 lead.
Smyrna kicked a 23-yard field goal following a Matt Williamson fumble inside the Indian River 10-yard line. A steadfast Indian defense squelched any idea of the Bulldogs scoring a touchdown by refusing to allow them a single yard. Smyrna was forced to settle for three points.
“That defensive stop was a testament to our defense,” said Bunting. “A lesser team would’ve quit, and our kids stood the test.”
Danny Veith fumbled a ball in Smyrna’s end zone following a 69-yard run on his first run from scrimmage, only to turn it over, giving Smyrna a touchback.
Indian River’s defense held Smyrna to only three rushing yards on 15 attempts but gave up three completions for 23 yards on the Bulldogs’ first drive. From there, Indian River’s front eight put the pressure on the quarterback, who threw 11 incomplete passes before completing another one.
Indian River’s defense played the passing lanes and applied constant pressure on the quarterback. Defensive lineman John Cordeaux (3.5 tackles and QB pressure) and Phillip Townsend (two tackles, two QB pressures and one pass defense) wrecked havoc on the line while the linebackers mopped up.
Linebacker Perry Townsend, along with Matt Williamson (also sack and pass defense) led the team with seven tackles apiece. But Townsend put Smyrna’s comeback efforts to sleep by intercepting Bulldog quarterback Jacob Emerson on two consecutive possessions in the fourth quarter. Josh Hitchens, Zack Rector and Ty Jennings tattooed Emerson at least once each, to force hurried passes and incompletions.
Offensively, Indian River completed critical passes and ran the ball effectively behind their dogged offensive line. Williamson earned 98 of his 132 rushing yards in the first half and had five runs over 10 yards, in addition to scoring the Indians’ second touchdown on a 4-yard scamper to cap off a 17-play drive that lasted nearly eight minutes.
“We ran that toss to the point where everybody knows that’s what we’re going to run. But you have to stop it before we’ll do anything else,” said Bunting. “We pick a side and beat the breath out of them — especially in the fourth quarter.”
Fullback Zack Rector added 58 yards on eight carries and one touchdown.
Indian River dominated the line of scrimmage but hemmed themselves in with penalties. They accumulated 13 penalties in the game. Three of those were in first half, but all of those three were committed on their second scoring drive.
“As far as that drive, it was like take one step forward and take two back. But there was no resentment in our guys,” said Bunting. “They huddled up and played it anyway.”
“I don’t get upset with aggressive penalties, it’s the mental ones that I get upset with,” explained Bunting.
Bunting voiced his frustrations with the amount of penalties his team earned in the Smyrna win but said he has taken steps in this past week of practice to remedy the miscues. He and his coaching staff went back to summer practice standards to institute a player-on-player instructional role in practice and help eliminate mistakes going into the state tournament.
“We paired up the seniors with underclassmen to help the younger kids,” said Bunting. “A lot of them take an active role in teaching their positions.”In addition to tweaking the offense further and straightening out mental errors, the bye week gives the ailing Indians some much-needed rest. Townsend still has a sore back. Danny Veith re-aggravated a deep thigh bruise. Mike DiNuble is recovering from a strained groin. Givans is hobbled with a sprained ankle and Tyler Hastings is done for the season.
Givans played injured throughout the entire Smyrna game — to which Bunting tipped his cap, because it’s created a win-or-nothing attitude that fuels winning teams.
“What a validation of his ability,” said Bunting. “He could’ve pulled himself from the game but wanted to help the team. He’s been frustrated with his performance at quarterback this season and this was a way for him to stand up and say, ‘Look at me now.’
“It fires up other players that see a player not quit because of injury,” Bunting noted. “A player asked Perry (Townsend) how his back felt and he replied ‘I feel no pain when I’m in this uniform.’ They ooze that feeling to the other players.”
Despite Kmetz’s recent success, Bunting isn’t benching Givans at quarterback. But the new wrinkle creates mismatches for whomever they play in the playoffs.
“It’s refreshing to have another weapon. Because, before, we were one-dimensional and ran the ball But now teams have something else to worry about,” said Bunting. “Now we have two quarterbacks to prepare for and Eric gives us another [heck] of a receiver.”
Indian River will play either Laurel or the winner of the Caravel/Brandywine game on Nov. 18 at 7 p.m.