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November 23, 2012
On Thanksgiving weekend, we'll crown two Champions in the Eastern Region. In Division 6, the defending State Champion Oscar Smith Tigers take on the unbeaten Ocean Lakes Dolphins at the Virginia Beach Sportsplex. Division 5 pits two undefeated teams against one another as the reigning State Champion Phoebus Phantoms play the Lake Taylor Titans at Harbor Park. Both are title game re-matches from 2008.
Before we start to breakdown this week's Championship matchups, let's review the Eastern Region Prediction Standings with State Football Editor Rod Johnson, VHSL-Reference.com and Matthew Hatfield.
Setting the Scene: If the last two years are any indication, a classic is in store for fans in the Eastern Region Division 6 Championship as the 2010 title match was decided by two points and the 2011 bought saw a failed two-point conversion in the closing moments of the fourth quarter in a one-point final margin. It's the top two seeds squaring off in the reigning Division 6 State Champion Oscar Smith Tigers, seeking its third state title since 2008 and fifth regional crown under Coach Rich Morgan, opposite the Ocean Lakes Dolphins, who won the Beach District title for the second time under Coach Chris Scott and are trying to capture the school's first ever regional title.
Oscar Smith won the only ever meeting between these two back in the 2008 Eastern Region Championship by a count of 28-21, also played at the Virginia Beach Sportsplex. For the Tigers, they are quite familiar with Beach District teams in the title game as they are making ninth straight appearance in the Eastern Region Championship game, facing a school from Virginia Beach for the eighth time. In fact, over the last 73 region games since 2007, Oscar Smith has won 72 of them with the lone defeat coming in the 2010 regional title game to Bayside. Besides their meeting with the Tigers four years ago, Ocean Lakes' only other trip to the region final was a 2002 loss to Western Branch.
Ocean Lakes has won every game they've played except a 21-15 victory over Salem by at least two touchdowns. It wasn't until last week's rout of Western Branch that they had trailed after one quarter of play, 13-7, before rattling off 34 unanswered points. Meanwhile, Oscar Smith rallied from deficits each of the last three weeks against King's Fork, Bayside and Salem to win, beating the Bulldogs in double-overtime.
Delaware commit Andre Dessenberg (70Rec. 1078Yds. 21TD's) is enjoying a breakout year at receiver for the Dolphins as he checks in a touchdown reception away from tying the Beach record set by Damon McDaniel of Landstown in 2005, and 4TD's shy of the state record. In fact, in the past three weeks, Dessenberg has scored 10 total touchdowns, eight of them receiving, with six scores against Kellam and four in last week's semifinal triumph over Western Branch. They have other skilled players at the receiver position, too, with sophomore standout Jaason Lewis, Mike Alston, SeSe Wolters and Quincy Watts, giving them the luxury to go with some three and four wide sets on a frequent basis.
On defense, it starts and ends with the guys up front for Ocean Lakes when you talk about BCS-level defensive tackles Demetri McGill (Maryland commit) and Derrick Nnadi, and ends Tony Baird (16 sacks) and Masaddiq Walton. Together, McGill and Nnadi have 113 assisted tackles and 15 sacks, clogging the middle and breaking through to harass quarterbacks also. From the linebacker spot, sophomore Jahvonni Simmons and senior Myke Knox have contributed 87 and 68 tackles respectively. In the secondary, Treavonne Brandon hovers around the ball with 14 pass breakups, three interceptions and a pair of defensive scores.
Over the years, Oscar Smith has produced some ultra-productive signal callers with Greg Boone, Dexter Merritt, VHSL-record setter Phillip Sims (UVA) and most recently J.J. Williams (Hampton University). The latest guy to put up stellar statistics is senior Dashawn Blow, making the most of his first and only year as a starter with 2173 yards and 32 touchdowns on 142 of 235 through the air. He has been picked off nine times, including 3INT's vs. Bayside in the quarterfinals. Blow goes into this matchup with some dependable targets at his disposal in ODU commit Melvin Vaughn (48Rec. 741Yds. 9TD's) and UVA commit Zack Jones (27Rec. 614Yds. 8TD's), a couple of proven All-State performers that are dangerous in the open field.
Vaughn got moved to running back when DeShawn McClease (100Car. 995Yds. 14TD's) was unable to play due to a shoulder injury and paid dividends with three of his four touchdowns coming on the ground. Monty Fenner, Tristan Cahill, Dior Dawson and Deshawn Hatten have all made clutch catches at some point or another during the season to go with those guys. McClease, who's expected to play in this one, and Marcus Smith give the Tigers a pair of ball carriers that have routinely gone over 100 yards rushing this year. Up front on the offensive line, Oscar Smith is anchored by their two tackles in Shedrick Oliver, an All-Southeastern District First Team selection, and five-star junior Andrew Brown, a menace from the defensive line as well.
Where Oscar Smith is strongest defensively is up front with the aforementioned Brown and Oliver along with d-ends Darren Flowers and Kanyia Anderson, an ODU commit. Together, Anderson and Flowers have combined for over 20 sacks, and last year Anderson set the school single-season record in that category. From the linebacker spot, the Tigers will count on Vaughn and Harris to bottle up the Dolphins' run game. In the defensive backfield, Jones will probably see quite a bit of time if needed, and the Tigers have received stellar play from such underclassmen as Fenner and Lakwon Chapel, who had a pivotal pick six in the second half vs. Bayside.
Ocean Lakes went from allowing 62 points in a playoff loss to Salem a year ago to giving up only 57 points through ten regular season games in 2012. That is astonishing improvement if you ask me (or anyone for that matter), and so far they rank #1 in the region in scoring defense. Oscar Smith's allowing 12.9PPG, but some of their stats are a little skewed negatively rather than positively because they played a Top 50 team in the country in Byrnes to open the season. Following that game, they gave up only 4.8PPG over the next eight, but got hit hard by King's Fork for 35 and Salem for 28 over the past three weeks.
#1 - - Time of Possession: Unlike some Ocean Lakes teams of the past, this version of the Dolphins is built to beat Oscar Smith with a ball-control style, but not totally like the way Western Branch operates because this passing game is much more of a threat than the one the Tigers saw versus the Bruins. Dunston has scored 12 touchdowns, proving to be punishing in goal-line situations behind a stellar o-line with two All-Region candidates in tackle Alex Skidmore (Duke commit) and guard Connor Kearney. In their 'Bull Package,' and short-line situations as well as the red zone, he's truly a factor between the tackles. Simmons eclipsed over 1000 yards on the season a week ago and he's checking in at almost 11 yards per attempt, so as long as they feed him the rock, good things will happen. That opens up play-action, too.
#2 - - Convert Third Downs: The longer Oscar Smith's offense is on the sideline watching helplessly, the better the odds are of knocking off the Tigers because that increases their frustration level. In order for that hope by the Dolphins to become a reality, converting third downs to extend drives, whether it's by air or ground, is immensely critical. Look for Lewis, look for Dessenberg, but if it means running the ball, do that as well. They have to identify where defensively Oscar Smith is most vulnerable, exploit that and do so until the Tigers make an adjustment to force the Dolphins to go to something else. Third down conversion rate could very well tell the story of the game.
#3 - - Force Blow Into Mistakes: Some teams, like Byrnes, Salem and Bayside, have had success forcing Blow into turnovers. But not every team Oscar Smith plays can do it and then capitalize. A matter of fact, two of those teams listed above lost. Rattle him from the start and have the Tigers playing from behind because when they are playing from in front, they seldom ever get caught. Do this and you don't allow Vaughn, Jones or anyone on the Smith roster to have a superstar performance and put the team on his back a la Tyrod Taylor for Hampton, Demetrious Nicholson with Bayside or others when they won Championships at the regional or state level (reason I didn't reference Hampton's Ronald Curry or Landstown's Percy Harvin is those two are in a class by themselves).
#1 - - Be Stout Against the Run: Few teams in the region have two running backs that consistently move the chains for them. Ocean Lakes doesn't; they have THREE in Bobo, Simmons and Dunston. All offer a little something different, and the Tigers have to be able to stop this dimension or at least slow it down some to advance. When Oscar Smith has lost, it usually has been to teams that can play power football, running up the gut. To go with Vaughn (10 tackles vs. Salem last week) and Harris, two reliable tacklers, they're going to need somebody at the linebacker position to play their best game of the year, whether that's Marquise Cooke, Corban Tanner or someone else. The Dolphins pose issues for opponents when they are methodical, and have excelled all year and using the run to set up the pass or pass to set up the run, diversifying their attack to the point where they are comfortable and extremely effective doing either.
#2 - - Find Creative Ways to get Vaughn & Jones the Ball: This is something Morgan did a week ago with Vaughn and it worked, enough so to get them out of a semifinal battle against Salem victorious. Ocean Lakes knows it'll be coming again and wherever Vaughn is, be certain that defense will highlight him and be prepared for the ball to go his way. Oscar Smith has to keep him involved and a significant factor as always, but they also need to get Jones to have a star performance a la what he showed in last year's State Semis win over Battlefield. If he raises his level of play, then Oscar Smith's offense becomes all the more difficult to defend, and Morgan can design several different ways to get them ball, whether it's on bombs, screens, crossing patterns, runs, direct snaps or reverses and jet sweeps. In a game where Dessenberg and Lewis are going to get a lot of attention, these two are the top weapons and playmakers for the Tigers.
#3 - -Hold Your Own in the Trenches: One of the main reasons Ocean Lakes has been a force this year and undefeated to this point is they have arguably as dominant a defensive tackle tandem as there is in Virginia with Nnadi and McGill, four-star and three-star prospects respectively. The Tigers need its offensive line of Oliver, Brown, Jahlil Bigby, Jaleel Shelton and Troye Harris to contain a Dolphins pass rush that has amassed 38 sacks amongst their front four on the d-line. Much like the above Key with Jones and Vaughn, the Tigers need their stud in the middle, Brown, to step up and give a monster effort to cancel out what those two pocket pushers on the interior for the Dolphins do.
Clearly, this is Ocean Lakes' best and most talented team yet. An argument can be made Ocean Lakes has better overall depth and firepower than Oscar Smith. It's a dynamic Dolphins bunch that has morphed into a team this year capable of beating opponents many different ways, which often times is the evolution of a good program developing into a Championship squad. But the one lingering question with Ocean Lakes is how will they react in a close game? They haven't trailed in the second half all year, so battling adversity against an Oscar Smith team that has responded to every challenge will be very interesting.
We have two players that were relatively unheralded going into the season at the quarterback position, and the one that makes the fewest mistakes likely gives his team the upper hand. While the Dolphins have numerous advantages on paper, it's hard for me to bet against Oscar Smith this time of the year as they continue to find ways to win, and the intangibles swing another tight game, something the Tigers are used to in the past month, in the favor of the gang from Chesapeake on the road.
Matthew Hatfield has covered Eastern Region Football & Basketball since 2004 for VirginiaPreps.com, part of the Rivals.com Network. Check out Hatfield's Twitter page for more sports related updates, and you can also read his work in the Suffolk News Herald. To contact Matthew, please e-mail email@example.com, and don't forget to listen to him Saturdays from 10AM to Noon on ESPN Radio 94.1 plus watch him on the Cox 11 Sports Report.