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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: Yet another chapter will be written in the postseason book between the four-time defending Division 5 State Champion Phoebus Phantoms and top-seeded Lake Taylor Titans. Phoebus enters having won an unprecedented 22 straight playoff games and they're looking to claim their seventh regional title in a row. They are coached by Jeremy Blount, the team's defensive coordinator who got promoted to Head Coach when the school decided to dismiss Stan Sexton around mid-season for what was called unspecified reasons. The Phantoms are in the regional title game for a 12th consecutive year, and it's the third meeting in this round with Lake Taylor during that stretch.
Under veteran Head Coach Hank Sawyer, the Titans have been the dominant program in the Eastern District, where they have won ten of the past 14 titles. The only things missing from his r?m?s an Eastern Region Championship, something the school hasn't won since 1982. In fact, a school in the city of Norfolk hasn't captured a State Championship in 46 years. Since 2002, Lake Taylor has lost all five postseason encounters with Phoebus, two of them in gut-wrenching fashion as they led in the fourth quarter in the '09 regional final before falling overtime, and last year they squandered a double-figure lead in the semis.
The two teams have had somewhat convincing games in getting here with Lake Taylor winning every contest except one, a 27-25 thriller against Granby where they scored a touchdown on the game's final play, by at least 21 points. Phoebus has had three close calls decided by three points or less, beating Peninsula rivals Hampton, Bethel and Heritage by a collective five points.
Running the football, the Titans have the dynamic duo of Brandon 'Pork Chop' Moore (183Att. 1562Yds. 21TD's), the Eastern District Offensive Player of the Year, and Daquan Davis (140Att. 1274Yds. 15TD's), a transfer from Norview. Donovan Powell is Mr. Versatility for the Titans; he's the lone player in the region that has thrown a touchdown pass, caught one and rushed for a score, plus he leads the team in defensive interceptions with four. The offensive line is an unsung group, but three players were chosen All-District, headlined by senior center Cliff Arrington.
Defensively, the Titans come at people fast and furious. Think of the movie; you better buckle the chin strap or you're headed backwards and it'll be in a hurry. In the regular season, they recorded 39 sacks. Brandon Lynch leads the way with 15 sacks and also in double-figures is Holmes. Jamel Spellman was named the co-Eastern District Defensive Player of the Year, and like several players on this defense, can play multiple positions along their defensive front. They come at offenses from different angles and there's a method to the madness. Two sophomores in Quinerly, a starting corner, and Marquise Poole have both made a significant impact. Nyquan 'Big Money' Harris, Shiheem Johnson and Dyshorn Askew are among the others hard to block up front.
It's a grind-it-out attack for Phoebus and always has been over the years from Bill Dee, to Sexton and now Blount. Tony Pittman is the engine that carries the Phantoms offense running the ball, and he's an absolute pitbull with that pigskin. On the year, Pittman has rushed 241 times for 1761 yards and 22 touchdowns, and he'd easily be over the 2000-yard threshold if not for missing two games during the season when he was suspended. After Pittman, the next offensive catalyst for the Phantoms is Richie Staton, an ODU commit that transferred to the team from Kecoughtan in the off-season. Staton has 10 catches for 234 yards and seven touchdowns, but most impressively is the fact he's found the end zone five different ways while playing an integral role defensively as well.
The Phantoms have to be pleased with how starting quarterback Terrell Toliver has performed as a freshman, completing 32 of 56 passes for 1667 yards and a 12-1TD/Int. ratio. To go with Pittman, the Phantoms have some very capable #2 and #3 options in Da'Quan Lane (100Att. 740Yds. 11TD's) and Atavius Matthews, a hard-hitting, fast-closing linebacker as well. Although they throw the ball less than five times per game on average, Toliver's efficiency and ability to escape the pocket and make plays on the run have been a real plus. They're kind of thin at receiver, but Troy Durham and Khaaliq Fletcher both have stepped up when called up on this year.
You'll be hard-pressed to find a bigger team up front on the offensive line or defensive line than the Phantoms. They go into every game firmly believing they had an advantage on the line of scrimmage and it's tough to argue that they don't. On the o-line, Harry Lewis, Jamal Earls, Tyreek Bailey, Walter Brantley, Mark Wilson and Anthony Burrell push forward and get outstanding leverage more times than not. There are two ODU commits on the d-line with Staton and Wilson, while Lewis and Kevin Lyles stuff the interior. Each postseason, the Phoebus defense gets a surprise lift from someone to go with their headliners, which on defense are those front four and Matthews from the linebacker spot. Watch out for freshman corner Robbie Robinson and seasoned senior Malik Hawkins.
Defensively, the Titans are giving up less than six yards rushing a game, making a boatload of tackles behind the line of scrimmage. Furthermore, Lake Taylor leads the Eastern Region in scoring offense and rank only second to Ocean Lakes in scoring defense. Maybe the most amazing statistic about Lake Taylor is the fact their defense has allowed opponents to convert only 18 of 126 third downs, just 14%.
#1 - - Tackling Pittman: The Titans must tackle him on the initial hit, particularly on first and second down to put the Phantoms in third down and long passing situations where Pittman isn't in the equation. What Pittman is notorious for is getting those tough to earn yards after contact. Lake Taylor has to minimize those and do something their defense has done for years under Sawyer - - that's arrive to the ball and the ball carrier in a bad mood. Pittman is not your typical running back in that he seemingly gets stronger as the game progresses, putting up better numbers in the second half than the first half. Lake Taylor's lack of depth at a few different positions could be put to the test, although if they keep them from getting in third down and manageable, it's a moot point.
#2 - - Finish Drives: As Lake Taylor has found out the hard way over the years, teams that let Phoebus hang around usually end up getting bit in the end. Lake Taylor has to finish in every thing that they do. That means finish drives, finish runs, finish tackles and put Phoebus away after half-time. Getting off the field no third down is vital and they want to finish in every facet of the game. Play all 48 minutes, not 30, 36 or 46. It takes a complete game effort to beat a team that has won four straight State Championships because they don't die easily. Toliver is pretty composed as a freshman, but the Titans have to get under his skin from the start and destroy his confidence. Don't leave any stones unturned.
#3 - - Ball Security: On the year, the Titans have thrown only two interceptions, both coming a week ago against Lakeland. They've lost 11 fumbles, a significantly lower number than in 2011. Last year in their loss to Phoebus, fumbles didn't cost the Titans. That being said, they have to make sure it doesn't hurt them this time around either. The Phantoms are benefitting greatly from that +21 in the turnover margin category, and if they are minus, Lake Taylor has the playmakers to make Phoebus pay. What the Titans can't do is turn it over, allow the Phantoms to milk the clock and pound away at them with Pittman and play their style of game. To get Phoebus out of its element, ball security is paramount.
#1 - - Set an Early Tone with the D-Line: Phoebus has one of the best defensive lines you'll find in the state with Wilson, Lewis, Lyles and Staton across their front, all capable of stuffing the run or providing a pass rush, and each is talented enough to command a double team when at the top of their game. Lyles especially gave Lake Taylor problems last year with his ability to knife through the line and make plays in the backfield. Lake Taylor's closest call to date came against Granby in which a young fella by the name of Tashad Charity made six sacks, and the Titans for a brief period appeared to be unraveling as they were called for five consecutive holding penalties. Break down their protection scheme, and both running and passing proficiently will be a chore for Lake Taylor vs. this defense.
#2 - - Tilt Field Position in Your Favor: As great as Phoebus has been, I find it to be an enormous task for the Phantoms to win unless they control field position most of the night. Give Lake Taylor a field of less than 60 yards to go and they'll do it, often times with ease. Five of the Titans' first six touchdowns in the semifinals against Lakeland were drives of 57 yards or less, meaning the Cavs basically found themselves in trouble from the start of those possessions. It's critical they force Lake Taylor to have to go 75+ yards, be patient and convert third downs to find the end zone. By doing this, it may help make Lake Taylor more of a one-dimensional attack on offense because they'll not want to risk turning it over and giving Phoebus a short field to work with offensively.
#3 - - Special Teams Execution: Longtime special teams coach Dick Van Dyke is one of the best around and the difference in several of Phoebus' big games during their Championship runs has been key plays and moments in this area. This year's Phantoms squad has had its ups and downs on special teams. They've gotten more than a few extra points blocked, and their return coverage has been a little spotty at times as well. They do have one of the best return men around in Staton. In addition, kicker Dylan Kremp drilled the game-winning field goal in last year's region semifinal win over Lake Taylor while Eric Enderson (now at Delaware) was still recovering from an injury. His leg might be crucial in the outcome again. Toliver at punter comes in averaging 33 yards per punt, and if the Phantoms can up that to 35-40 in this game, they'd be extremely pleased.
The Titans have banged their head on this Phoebus wall time and time again, coming up short in heart-breaking fashion that may no longer be explicable to the human race. Okay, that might be stretching it a little, but put it this way, I'm not sure they can swallow another playoff loss to Phoebus. It seems this is their season, and the chance to exercise the demons, move on to the State Playoffs for the first time in 30 years is theirs. Matchup-wise, there's plenty to like, and question marks or major concerns, the grandest probably being how to slow Pittman, though if there's any defense equipped to do it, this one's a mighty good choice.
I've gone back and forth on this game for the past week once we found out these two would hook up as expected. This is a focused and determined Titans group, much like the Phantoms are, and in the end this time Lake Taylor's drive could be a little bit better to finally push them through.
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.