Friday, September 15, 2017 11:30 pm
Leo 35, East Noble 21
Leo finds answers, beats East Noble
MARK SCHUTTE | For The Journal Gazette
KENDALLVILLE – After losing two games that deep down they believed they should have won, the Leo players were left searching for answers how to finish games.
The Lions may have found them in an early-morning, players-only meeting before school on Monday
“What we did was just tell the truth and get everybody comfortable with each other,” junior Alex Wertman said. “We came in early before school and we talked to each other, let each other know what we needed to work on, how we needed to finish every game.”
The Lions finished things emphatically Friday night, beating host East Noble 35-21 to improve to 3-2 and 2-1 in the Northeast Eight. The Knights, ranked No. 19 in Class 4A, fell to 3-2 and 2-1.
Wertman ran through the Knights’ defense for 138 yards and two touchdowns on 32 carries, senior quarterback A.J. Restivo ran for two touchdowns and passed for 177 yards, including 128 of them to senior Colton Grahovac, who returned after missing last week’s game against New Haven with an ankle injury.
More than getting Grahovac back, the Lions saw the return of a complete-game effort – which was missing in their two losses, 41-35 to Angola and 35-33 in overtime to New Haven.
Not only did both losses come at home, but they came after Leo held the lead until late in the fourth quarter. Against New Haven, the Bulldogs converted a fourth-and-29 and tied the game with 19 seconds to go and went on to win in overtime.
So, the players met Monday morning, then they heard more at practice from the coaches.
“It really was just about finishing, saying each play is the last play and continuing to play hard and there can’t be any letup,” Leo coach Jared Sauder said. “To the kids’ credit, they bought into that and I’m just so proud of their effort tonight and what they put into this.
“I think it hit them that the games we lost we just didn’t do a good enough job making plays and getting the job done when the play needed to be done, whether it was before halftime or at the end of a game. That’s the difference from last week to this week because we had kids making plays when they needed to make plays.”
The Lions built a 21-7 lead in the first half on Wertman’s first touchdown, a 29-yard fumble return by sophomore Cameron Livingston and Restivo’s first score with 19 seconds to go in the half.
But when East Noble senior Griffen Dafforn-Koebler scored his second touchdown of the night on a 5-yard run to open the fourth quarter, the Lions saw their lead cut to 21-14 and a sense of here-we-go-again creeping toward their sideline.
Doubt didn’t reach the Lions this time, as they took their possession and used just six plays to go 66 yards, with Restivo running in the final 13 yards for a 28-14 lead with 7:33 to play.
“It was nice to see the kids respond to that and continue playing,” said Sauder, whose team avoided falling below .500 at this point in the season since his first year as coach in 2006.
Wertman added his second touchdown, set up by a 28-yard reception by Grahovac, about two minutes later to make it 35-14.
The Knights added a late score on a 14-yard pass from senior Andrew McCormick to sophomore Hayden Jones. But it was the only sustained drive the Lions allowed against an East Noble offense that entered averaging 30.5 points a game.
Most notably, the Knights were just 6-for-16 on third-down conversions and 3-for-5 on fourth down.
“We had struggled defensively all year,” Sauder said. “Our defensive staff did a great job making some adjustments this week and the kids executed well. It was almost like a different defensive unit out there tonight than what we’ve seen in the past.”