WALKER -- For Live Oak’s winning formula to click, certain elements have to be in place and working well. When one of those key cogs is removed, somebody or something else has to rise above the normal level to keep things humming.
Field position, controlling the clock, stingy defense and effective special teams -- for the most part -- were all part of the story and some uncharacteristic play from Walker also contributed Friday night.
Junior quarterback Gabe Schenk turned in a subtly effective relief performance off the bench and the Eagles’ young and sometimes maligned cornerbacks, Ray’Shion Brumfield and Jordan Lee, came up big as Live Oak generated enough plays in all three phases to slip past the Wildcats 17-14.
Brayden Betz’s 41-yard field goal with 5:23 left in the game proved to be the winning margin and Taylor Martin pounced on Calvin Watson’s bobbled punt return inside the final 2 minutes to seal the win as the Eagles (5-2) stayed even with Scotlandville at the top spot in the District 4-5A standings at 2-0.
Walker lost for the first time this season (6-1) and dropped to 1-1 in league play, largely because the Wildcats’ potent offense never got revved up and spent almost the entire night on its own end of the field.
Suffocated by the Live Oak defense, Walker got off only 31 offensive snaps for a meager 147 total yards and six first downs. Only three of the Wildcats’ plays came in Eagles’ territory (for 8 yards), none in the second half.
“The whole game was played on our end of the field,” WHS coach Brandon Lawley said. “Even when we stopped them it was backed up.”
Betz was a big reason why.
Besides the timely booming kick that stretched the LOHS lead to 17-7, Betz constantly pinned Walker deep with three touchbacks on kickoffs and 34.9 yards on seven punts -- his last three putting the Cats at the 11-yard-line or deeper.
That added up to poor field position most of the game for Walker: On five first-half possessions, the Wildcats’ average starting spot was just past its own 20 and in the second half, the average was from just inside the 17.
“When we can flip the field and win the field position battle and the clock battle and not let people have their returns, we feel like that fits right into the formula we need to be successful,” LOHS coach Brett Beard said after his crew won a fifth consecutive intra-parish game with a second straight sweep of Denham Springs High and Walker.
Especially with the long-range weapon that Betz has become. He missed a 26-yard kick on the opening series of the game, but the decisive connection was a no-doubter and he was just as valuable to the Eagles and damaging to the Wildcats as a punter.
“Any time you can hit a (41)-yard field goal in a high school game, that’s huge,” Lawley said.
“They pinned us inside the 20 all night, and it’s very hard to drive to 85-90 yards against their defense.”
It took more than Betz, of course, and Live Oak kept coming up with solutions despite a major hurdle rising in the third quarter.
Senior quarterback Ryan Morris, who had rushed for 322 yards in the two previous games, hobbled off the field with assistance at the 5:10 mark of the third period with what Beard deemed a serious knee sprain and never returned.
That turning point came right after Watson breathed new life into Walker with a dazzling 88-yard punt return with Josh Cook springing him with a huge block as Watson sprinted down the left sideline.
Watson’s jolt sliced the Eagles’ lead to 14-7 and Morris’ exit added another unexpected twist for both teams.
On the ensuing possession, Walker linebacker Mason Dwyer stuffed Markel Rudison for a 1-yard loss on third down to force a punt, and Betz responded by dropping the ball at the 11-yard-line.
The teams traded three-and-outs for three possessions in a row before, the last exchange after Brumfield dislodged the ball from Walker star receiver Terrell Warner at the last minute on a quick slant that may have been a touchdown had the ball been secured cleanly.
Live Oak gained a field-position edge and took over at its own 47 with 9:27 on the fourth-quarter clock and carved out a first down on two runs with an offsides penalty on the Wildcats sandwiched in between. Schenk gobbled up 17 yards on a keeper to the left side on a play that Morris has mastered in the Eagles’ triple-option scheme.
Schenk’s burst proved to be the bulk of a 29-yard drive that got Betz just close enough for the field goal and 10-point cushion. Schenk wound up with 23 yards on eight attempts, part of a workmanlike 227-yard rushing night for LOHS on 59 carries.
“You lose a quarterback and that’s part of the game,” Beard said. “We run a physical offense and those guys are going to get hit and beat up, and the next guy has got to be able to go in and finish the job and clean it up. Schenk did a phenomenal job of doing that.”
Walker’s defense held up well against the triple option at times, but couldn’t contain two unexpected wrinkles: Morris throwing the ball and Hunter Kelley wiggling loose for chunks of yardage on the perimeter.
Morris hit all four passes he attempted for 105 yards, including a 70-yard touchdown to Markel Rudison in the third quarter that doubled a 7-0 halftime lead. On the play, Morris executed two flawless play-action fakes – first to a dive back and then to Kelley on a pitch before lofting a strike to Rudison, who was open in the middle of the filed without a green jersey within 20 yards of him.
The fake to Kelley was a byproduct of what he had done in the first half with eight carries for 92 yards, buoyed by gouging runs of 44, 14 and 24 yards. His longest run came from the 7-yard-line got LOHS rolling on a 93-yard drive that Morris capped when he shouldered into the end zone from the 2-yard-line just before the opening quarter expired.
Kelley finished with 101 yards on 11 totes.
“The offensive line was getting really good pull on the toss and getting me out in the open field where I had a lot of room to run,” Kelley said.
As effective as the Eagles were to construct the 17-7 lead, Walker jumped right back into contention two snaps after Betz’s kick. WHS quarterback Jacobi Scott threw incomplete on first down, but Live Oak was flagged for pass interference on the next play to give the Cats a rare first down.
On the next play, Darius Hampton beat Lee for position on a slant, snatching a pass near midfield and racing the length of the field for a 65-yard score that pulled the Wildcats within 17-14 with 4:52 to play.
Big plays like that were few and far between for Walker, though.
Scott hit on only seven passes with just two others covering more than 16 yards -- both to Warner for 20. Brumfield and Lee were a major reason why the Cats never got into a rhythm because they clamped down on Hampton and Warner, limiting the duo to six catches for 125 yards -- three that ate up 105 yards, including the late TD.
“I knew I was going to be matched up with some very good receivers, so I just had to play my game to the best of my abilities,” said Brumfield, who snuffed out a promising Walker drive in the second quarter with an interception after sparking a second-half onslaught against DSHS with a pick-six.
“We just played every play and focused on stopping them on third downs.”
Added Beard, “I loved the matchup going into the game because we were going to find out if (Brumfield and Lee) are for real. You play against big-time players like that, you want your big-time players with them. I thought those two guys really did a good job.”
Still, the final few minutes came down do an untimely mistake.
The Eagles milked as much of the clock as they could after the Scott-to-Hampton lightning strike and managed to carve out a pair of first downs, which forced Walker to burn all three timeouts. Wildcat linebackers Ke’Andre Ventress and Cook came up big stops to force a Betz punt from just inside Walker territory.
Watson positioned himself under the kick at the 14-yard-line close to the sideline and called for a fair catch, but couldn’t gather the ball in cleanly. Martin smothered the loose ball and the Eagles ran out the clock.
That was Walker’s second turnover, while Live Oak didn’t have a giveaway.
“We hit their punt returner real hard a couple of times and then we muffed one when there was no contact,” Lawley said. “Not getting a turnover was the biggest thing. We’ve been good at taking the ball away all year, but we didn’t come up with one (Friday) and that was big.”
Big enough to give Live Oak just enough to prevail against a Walker team that Beard lauded as leaps and bounds better than last year.
“This was a big win for us against a really good team, a tough team,” Beard said.
Added Kelley, “This keeps us going in the right direction and lets us know what we have to keep working on. We have to keep getting better because we know how much better our district is this season."
The Eagles head to Zachary next Friday to take on the Broncos (5-2, 1-1) after they squeaked by Denham Springs High 35-34 in overtime. Walker travels to Scotlandville (7-0, 2-0) next week.
OUTSIDE THE HUDDLE
- Walker starters Tristan Taylor, Jalen Hills and Kane Buckhalter were not in uniform during pre-game work or in the first half. Taylor and Hills came out of the locker room at halftime in full gear and both got carries, but made a very minimal impact. Hills has a broken bone in his foot and Taylor is battling a rotator cuff injury.
- Live Oak commanded a dominating edge in time of possession. The Eagles held on to the ball for 35:46 of the 48 minutes and ran 63 plays to Walker’s 31.
- Morris was effectively bottled up most of the night and finished with only 34 rushing yards on 17 carries. On his first five attempts, the LOHS quarterback was at -1 yard and 13 of his 17 carries went for 3 yards or less.
- Four Live Oak players caught passes, all for 10 yards or more and a first down: Rudison 1-70 (TD), Kelley 1-14, Cade Freneaux 1-11 and Cameron Ruiz 1-10.
- Scott passed for 141 yards after recording a season-low 116 against Central the week before. He is just 15-for-35 passing in the two outings. The Eagles also sacked him three times for -27 yards.
Live Oak 17, Walker 14
Live Oak 7 0 7 3 -- 17
Walker 0 0 7 7 -- 14
LO -- Ryan Morris 2 run (Brayden Betz kick), :08
LO -- Markel Rudison 70 pass from Morris (Betz kick), 10:03
WA -- Calvin Watson 88 punt return (Caleb Wall kick), 5:44
LO -- Betz 41 FG, 5:23
WA -- Darius Hampton 65 pass from Jacobi Scott (Wall kick), 4:52
Live Oak Walker
First downs 16 6
Total yards 332 147
Rushes-Yards 59-227 15-6
Passing yards 105 141
Passes 4-4-0 7-16-1
Fumbles-Lost 1-0 2-1
Punt-Avg. 7-34.9 7-36.7
Penalties-Yards 3-30 5-35
Randy Rosetta is Sports Editor of The Livingston Parish News.
You can reach him at (225) 610.5507 or RandyR@LivingstonParishNews.com.
Follow on Twitter: @RandyRosetta | @LPN_Sports | @LPNews1898