Short-handed Oak Park survives a defensive battle at Birmingham Groves
BIRMINGHAM — With all the playmakers littered across the star-studded Oak Park offensive lineup, sometimes it’s easy to forget that the Knights have a pretty staunch defense, too.
With that offense down a starting wideout and running back, the Knights had to use a little ground control and a whole lot of defensive plays to hold on for a 13-7 win over a veteran Birmingham Groves team that they shared the Oakland Activities Association White title with a season ago.
“It’s a hard-fought win. In the road, in our league, it’s just fantastic, and you’ve gotta fight on the road,” Oak Park coach Greg Carter said. “The kids fought.”
Unfortunately for the Knights (2-0, 1-0 OAA White), who were already missing running back Torriano Richardson with a hamstring issue, the referees thought they may have fought a bit too hard on one play, ejecting (perhaps mistakenly) king-sized wideout Maliq Carr for apparently throwing a punch after he got tangled up with a defensive back.
“From my vantage point, the defensive back pulled our guy’s facemask, and he pushed him in retaliation, and I think the ref thought he threw a punch. They put him out of the game for throwing a punch. We looked at it during the game, and he really just pushed him really hard. We can’t over-react to that. You pick up your helmet, and you play another play,” Carter said, admitting that it changed the Knights’ game plan.
“In a game like this, where they’re pressuring our quarterback, and we lost our best receiver, we knew we had to run the football, and we knew Phil (Stewart) could carry the load for us. … He’s a super player, man, and we’re blessed to have a lot of weapons, and you need them in a game like this, a division game, where everybody knows each team, and you know it’s going to be difficult offensively.”
Starting for the second straight game in the place of Richardson, Stewart carried the ball 24 times for 138 yards and a pair of scores.
The first came two plays into the game, after a 48-yard bomb from Dwan Mathis to Carr set up Stewart’s 11-yard score.
The second score came with 2:32 to play, as Stewart’s 2-yard run capped an 18-play, 61-yard drive that ground nine minutes off the clock, and broke a 7-7 tie.
In between? Very little for either offense, as that familiarity kept either team from making much headway.
“I thought it was going to be a shootout,” said Oak Park junior Enzo Jennings of the initial burst of offense. “Their defense, they’re the truth. It was a dogfight.”
A large part of that defensive truth comes from Harvard-bound corner Khalil Dawsey, who used exceptional closing speed to pick off a Mathis pass in the third quarter, ending one Oak Park drive before it could get started.
“No, he doesn’t astound me anymore. He makes plays. He’s just really, really football smart. His football IQ is off the charts. I mean, he’s smart to begin with, he’s going to Harvard for a reason. But he’s just football smart. We talked on the sideline. We knew they were going to take a shot or two, and he was ready for it, and made a play,” Groves coach Brendan Flaherty said. “I just think we’ve got a lot of guys returning, and there’s some senior guys there that just will stuff to happen. Tough guys that worked extremely hard to get here. … There’s seasoned veterans, like four of them who are coaches on the field there. It’s what we expect, but we just came up a little short.”
Dawsey came up with the biggest offensive play of the game for Groves (0-2, 0-1), as well, taking a slip screen 20 yards for a touchdown to tie it at 7-7 midway through the third quarter.
“Everything worked out perfectly, the line blocked perfectly, and I just saw a hole and I took advantage of it,” Dawsey said.
“When I saw that open grass, I got nervous. I said, ‘Oh, God. I don’t think we’re going to catch him,’” Carter said.
Stewart’s second TD eventually put the Knights back on top, but the extra point was blocked by Henry Van Faussien, who came through a gap that opened because Oak Park only had 10 on the field.
“We put pressure on ourselves for by not making that extra point. But that was on the coaching staff. We hadn’t scored in so long, I guess we forgot about the extra point,” Carter said, fearing that it would be the reason for a loss, when Groves started moving the ball on the ensuing possession.
“They were moving the football, and the kicker they have is just outstanding, so if they score a touchdown, we probably we lose.”
Junior defensive back Jalen Fielder made a big play on first down of Groves’ final drive, tipping the ball away from Dawsey’s hands before he could take off on another screen pass.
“When a player like that is on the field, you’ve gotta know where he is at all times,” Fielder said. “I saw it, and I just communicated with my corner that, and I just said, ‘If my man goes out, I’ve got yours.’ Just made a play.”
Three pass plays later, Jennings made the defensive play that sealed the game, picking off a pass near midfield.
“Our defense back coach, he said ‘Watch the pass.’ Everybody was locked in. I knew I couldn’t let nothing get past me. I saw the pick,” Jennings said. “I saw he was going to run the slant, and I kind of baited the quarterback. I let him get (a couple feet) in front of me, and then I hurried up and ran in front of him and made the catch.”
After the interception, the Knights ran the final two minutes off the clock for the win.