H.S. FOOTBALL: IHS opens with feel-good win
ALLISON PARK — When the Indiana Indians fumbled the ball away on their first play from scrimmage Friday night, things easily could have unraveled from there.
Truth be told, there have been times when they did.
But in a twist of fortune, the turnover ended up being the only lowlight for the upstart Indians.
Sean Thompson passed for 155 yards and three touchdowns, DeQuan West rushed for 116 yards and a score, and the Indians kicked off the 2013 season with a 33-7 shellacking of Hampton in a WPIAL Greater Allegheny Conference football game at Fridley Field.
“It feels real good just getting a win,” said Indiana coach Mark Zilinskas. “It doesn’t matter if it’s by one point or 20 — it picks up the kids’ spirits because it’s great to open with a win.”
Other than the first play, when Thompson’s pitch was wild and ended up being recovered by the Talbots at the Indiana 19-yard line, nothing else really went wrong for the Indians on opening night.
Indiana outgained Hampton by almost 200 yards, forced four turnovers, made several big stops on defense and generally had their way with the Talbots, a team trying to rebuild after the loss of most of their starters from last year.
Zilinskas said the biggest factor in his team’s win was its mental preparation.
“I had a good feeling on the bus coming down,” he said. “I said to the kids, ‘It won’t come down to ability, and it won’t come down to conditioning or strength. It’s coming down to our mindset. We need to raise the intensity for 48 minutes.’ And that’s what happened.”
Indiana opened last season by taking one on the chin from Hampton, 45-21, and Zilinskas said he felt his team was primed for payback.
“We talked about how last year we helped these guys out,” he said. “We gave them all the breaks, and that was about not being ready. But tonight we were ready. I could feel it in warm-ups. Our guys were chomping at the bit to get out here.”
After losing the fumble to start the game, the Indians rebounded by forcing a turnover when Riley Stapleton snared an interception and raced 71 yards to set up Indiana at the Hampton 29. Five plays later, West bowled into the end zone for a touchdown and the rout was on.
West, who started last season as the quarterback before getting hurt and watching Thompson take over, flourished in his first game as the Indians’ fullback. He did most of his damage in the first half, when he rushed for 95 yards and a touchdown and the Indians took a 21-0 lead.
“He’s just starting. … He’s a big, strong kid who is hard to bring down,” Zilinskas said. “He’s going to get better every week. He’s one of those guys you just can’t coach. He just reacts. He comes over after a play, and if you ask him why he cut there, he doesn’t know. He just does it. He does what comes natural for him. He just needs to get more reps.”
West said he feels like he has finally found a home on offense.
“I like it better than having to make something happen at QB,” he said. “I like having the blocks already there and I can just run the ball. I like it a lot.”
And his thoughts on the quarterback who replaced him?
“I like having him at quarterback better than me,” West said as he pointed to Thompson. “He really knows how to throw the ball.”
Having two wideouts like Stapleton and Darrious Carter made Thompson’s job much easier.
“I wouldn’t want any other receivers than those two,” Thompson said.
Stapleton ended up with a huge night on both sides of the ball. The 6-foot-4 junior intercepted two passes on defense and caught four passes for 94 yards and two touchdowns on offense.
He teamed with the 6-5 Carter to form a 1-2 punch that Hampton couldn’t handle. They each hauled in short-yardage touchdowns on fade patterns over smaller defenders and created matchup problems that made things easy for Thompson, who completed 9 of 14 attempts for 155 yards without an interception.
It was Indiana’s first game with the new shotgun package it installed this summer. Although the Indians didn’t stray too far from their veer option system too often, when they did it usually resulted in big plays.
“It felt good to prove that what we’re trying to do is working,” Thompson said. “But we need to keep getting better at it.”
Thompson’s 61-yard scoring strike to Stapleton early in the third quarter made it 27-0, but the Talbots answered with their only score to briefly make a game of it. But that’s as close as Hampton would get, as Ian Scott’s 25-yard scamper put the finishing touches on the win.
The 33 points were impressive, but what Zilinskas was particularly thrilled about was the play of his defense. The Indians gave up only 186 total yards and pushed around a Hampton offense that couldn’t get much going.
“I think the best part about tonight is the way we played defense,” he said. “It’s been a while since we played like that. We were physical up front and we ran to the ball real well. We did have a couple breakdowns, but all in all, I thought it was a really good effort from our defense.”
The defense’s intensity helped fuel an offense that seems capable of hitting big plays on any down. That adds up to a great start to a season in which the Indians have some high expectations.
“It’s great to come out here and get a win,” Thompson said. “This win gives us the confidence we need because it backs up what we’ve thought all along — that we can play pretty well.”