October 20, 2014

Elyria
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Regional football: Elyria Catholic has plenty of offense, but not enough defense

PEMBERVILLE — Forget about the style or the lack thereof. The Eastwood Eagles take a Stone Age approach to football: slam the ball down their opponents’ throats.
They do it relentlessly and they do it well. And, given their success, it would be hard to argue with the results.
Behind the outstanding running of tailback Jeremy Foster and a dominant performance from the Eagles’ offensive line, Eastwood (11-0) squelched Elyria Catholic’s postseason hopes.
Eastwood’s rushing attack compiled 388 yards, 287 of which came on the legs of Foster, who carried his team to a 42-27 victory over the Panthers in Saturday’s Division IV, Region 14 quarterfinals at Freedom Field.
The Eagles (10-1) will now face Genoa — their geographical and Suburban Lakes League rival which accounts for Eastwood’s only loss of the year.
The defeat ends the season for Elyria Catholic (8-3), which reached the postseason for the second time in three years.
The Panthers boasted one of the most explosive offensive attacks in the state and proved such against a premier defense. However, Elyria Catholic’s weak underbelly throughout the regular season was its rushing defense.
On Saturday, against a top rushing offense, it proved to be the Panthers’ downfall.
“Against good teams we struggled (to stop the run) and that’s on me,” said Elyria Catholic coach Ben Malbasa. “We were good enough that I think we should have been able to play a little bit better tonight on defense.”
The Panthers put on one of their best offensive shows of the year, compiling 468 yards of total offense — all but 10 of which came from the arm of quarterback Cody Schuster, who threw for four touchdowns.
The problem was the timing. Three of those touchdowns came within two plays or less of an Eastwood score. The Eagles would set the tone, the Panthers would respond. It might have made for great entertainment, but it wasn’t a recipe for postseason success.
“They couldn’t stop our offense,” Schuster said. “They made big plays, we made big plays. But we, obviously, didn’t make enough. That’s what it came down to.”
It was a matchup that lived up every bit to its billing. In the span of 14 seconds in the first quarter, both teams showcased their explosive abilities. On Foster’s second carry of the game, he lowered his shoulder and slammed up the middle, breaking free of an arm tackle and into open space and raced 85 yards for the first score of the game.
On Elyria Catholic’s ensuing possession, Schuster arched a perfect pass down the right sideline to Baker for a 63-yard strike to tie it at 7.
But very quickly it became a game dictated by the sledgehammer ground game of Foster and his offensive line.
Foster, a 5-foot-11, 194-pound tailback, can both run and hit. But what makes him the showcase weapon for Eastwood is his uncanny sense of patience — knowing when the hole will open and where.
The Panthers’ defensive line wasn’t necessarily blown off the off the ball by the Eagles’ blockers. Instead, they were engaged just long enough to give Foster time to work.
On many of his runs, Foster slipped through the first 4 yards without being touched — driving straight into the heart of the Panthers’ defense. Just as revealing, it was Elyria Catholic’s secondary often dragging Foster down.
“Not to sound cocky, but I felt like I couldn’t be stopped,” said Foster. “Every time I got the ball, I grit my teeth and ran as hard as I could.”
The Panthers had little choice but to commit extra defenders to the line of scrimmage, thereby leaving their cornerbacks exposed for long passes. Eastwood quarterback Eric Rutherford, the son of Eastwood coach Jerry Rutherford, attempted only 66 passes in 10 regular-season games — a stunning indication of a team’s ground-game productivity.
On Saturday, Rutherford ran the play-action fake and twice burned EC’s defense. On one play, midway through the first quarter, Rutherford found Matt Schlumbohm completely unblocked 20 yards downfield waving his arms frantically. Rutherford fired a bullet and Schlumbohm walked into the end zone for a 32-yard score.
The Panthers trailed 14-7, but appeared to stagger under the weight of several critical turns: tailback Jayson Graham was stuffed at the line of scrimmage on a third-and-short and fumbled the football, giving Eastwood the ball on EC’s 42. Rutherford then found Schlumbohm down the middle of the field for a 41-yard strike and Foster punched it in from a yard out to go into halftime with a 21-7 bulge.
For all its struggles to contain Eastwood, Elyria Catholic was very much alive into the fourth quarter.
Eastwood seemingly had the game all but wrapped up on Chad Fairbank’s 12-yard touchdown run with 4:42 remaining.
But Schuster lined up in the shotgun and found wideout Pat Flanagan at midfield, who then turned and pitched the ball to an oncoming Richie Baker, who raced the length of the football field.
“We knew they were going to score some points,” Jerry Rutherford said. “We knew we couldn’t stop them every time, because no one has. We were just able to hold them at times.”
For Malbasa, it was a bittersweet conclusion to a hopeful season.
“The bar at EC is very high,” said Malbasa, who concluded his first year as a head coach. “It should be high. We’re a state championship-caliber program and making the playoffs is never going to be enough — for our players, for our coaches, for our community. And I’m proud to be at a program where that’s the case.”
Contact Pete Alpern at 329-7137 or palpern@chroniclet.com.