Walled Lake Western survives defensive struggle in must-win game vs. South Lyon East, winning 12-7
WIXOM — It wasn’t much of a surprise that, with their collective backs against the wall, it was the South Lyon East defense that was the biggest factor for the majority of Friday’s Lakes Valley Conference game against preseason co-favorite Walled Lake Western.
It might’ve been more of a surprise that it was the Western defense, thoroughly dissected a week ago, that sealed the must-win game for the Warriors, making one big offensive play stand up for a 12-7 win.
“The kids played good. We had a lot to make up for from last week, (when) we kind of got shredded. And had a lot to prove coming out,” first-year coach Alex Grignon said of his defense, which had to bounce back from a resounding 28-7 loss to Lakeland last week, while his offense had to deal with the conference’s stingiest defense. “Offensively, they (the Cougars) did a great job of taking away a lot of our game plan, and forcing us into difficult situations. We’re still committing too many penalties, which doesn’t help. But they played a tremendous game. There’s no ifs, ands or buts about it. They played their (butts) off, and it was a close game to the end.”
With the win, Western (5-2, 5-1 LVC) keeps its title hopes alive for at least another week, facing unbeaten South Lyon (7-0, 6-0) on the road next week.
“We got three conference championship games in a row. If this means anything to us, we’ll come ready to play, and have that championship mindset,” Grignon said. “We’re by no means overlooking anybody — if anything, we’re the underdog next week, with them being undefeated. They believe in themselves, and have every right to believe in themselves.”
Friday’s game against South Lyon East (4-3, 4-2) was the first of those must-win scenarios, and it was anything but easy, even though the Cougars were missing their starting signal-caller, Chris Kaminski, who injured a shoulder in last week’s win over Waterford Mott.
“He got hurt last game, first drive of the second half. Two guys landed on his shoulder and knocked him out,” said East coach Joe Pesci, who had to watch with his fingers crossed as Kaminski’s replacement, sophomore Aiden Oliver tried to take the Cougars down the field for the potential go-ahead score with a drive that started with just 3:14 left in the game.
East drove it all the way to the Western 16 before the drive started to go backwards, eventually stalling out.
“We just kind of didn’t execute right there,” Pesci said. “He (Oliver) is only a sophomore. He showed a lot of moxie out there, and to bring us down (the field) like he did, and to get in a situation where you’re asking a lot of a sophomore in his first start to finish that thing. But he played pretty well right up to the end, and we just kind of had a few mistakes right at the end.”
Senior wideout Sean Clary leapt high to snare a 36-yard pass on third-and-23 to get the Cougars down inside the red zone, but Spencer Brown and Chris Harris had sacks on back-to-back plays — the second and third sacks on the drive — and Abdur-Rahmaan Yaseen picked off a desperation pass on fourth-and-24 to seal the win.
“It was definitely a big play, senior making a big play, stepping up,” Grignon said of Brown sticking a big paw out and hauling Oliver down. “He kept his eyes downfield, and we brought more than they were blocking with, and knew they were probably throwing in that situation, so it was a little easier to bring some pressure.”
It was really the only offensive drive of note for the Cougars, who spent most of the night playing a game of defense and field position. Their only points came on a 92-yard kickoff return by Jonathan Carter just after Western’s Aiden Jennings hit the first of two field goals.
“We didn’t want to hope and hang on with seven off that, but … that was kind of it,” Pesci said. “They (the defense) played quite a bit tonight. In the first half, I think we only had 12 or 13 offensive plays, and we can’t afford to have them play that much like that. We asked a lot of them tonight and … heck, they only gave up 12 points to that offense, and those skill guys, that’s pretty good.”
Jennings hit a 30-yard field goal with 30 seconds left before halftime to cut the East lead to 7-6, but the Warriors were frustrated by their inability to get any big plays against the Cougars defense.
“We had several guys wide open, but teams will give us that until we start hitting them. Just ‘let them take that,’ and all of a sudden, it’s second-and-10, third-and-10, not where you want to be,” Grignon said. “They do a tremendous job with their limited box, and both their outside backers are great players, and they really restrict you, try to force you wide, and two of their best players are out wide.”
The guy trying to pry open the East defense was getting frustrated, too, by three trips inside the East 30 yielding just six points.
“It was pretty frustrating, but when we’re in the red zone, we’ve gotta put up points. Thanks to Aiden for making the kicks when we got down there. But we gotta put up points when we got down there,” said Western quarterback Sam Johnson, who just missed on several deep passes before finally connecting on the third play of the fourth quarter. “I was thinking that (it was coming eventually). I knew I was putting a little too much on it, and I know I had to wait a little longer to let them run up under it. But shoot, we got it at the right time, you know? It paid off for us in a big fashion.”
Johnson hit Bryce Mosely with a 52-yard bomb, and two plays later, C.J. Brown punched into the end zone from 6 yards out for the go-ahead score. The 2-point conversion attempt failed, leaving it 12-7, but that would be all the Warriors would need.