Penalties, fumbles, and special teams mishaps: all hallmarks of a season-opener. And although Orange County will have plenty of tape to dissect regarding the former and latter, thanks to three fumble recoveries in Courtland territory cashed in for touchdowns, the Hornets put one in the win column after a 35-14 victory on the Cougars’ blue turf.
“We’ve got kids working so hard right now, and I’m just proud of their tenacity and focus,” said Orange coach Jesse Lohr, as his squad pitched a second-half shutout while outgaining Courtland 161-56.
Tied 14-14 at halftime, the Hornets’ series to open the third quarter was emblematic of how their miscues proved less debilitating than Courtland’s. After a block-in-the-back on the kickoff return pinned the offense at the 12, Courtland’s defense stuffed a third-and-2 run in the backfield for an apparent three-and-out. With Bryant Chiles in punt formation, the Cougars got heavy pressure up the middle for the third time on the night. While this resulted in punts of 0 and 14 yards in the second quarter, this time Chiles took off to the left side, picking up 10 yards and a new set of downs.
“I’d love to take credit, but that was just an athlete making a play,” Lohr said, as he had not called a fake punt at his own 18 in a tie game.
The drive stalled again near midfield after Courtland came up with a third-and-10 sack. This time, Chiles got off a punt, which bounced inside the 20. But just before the end of the roll, a Courtland player swooped in and touched the ball. With Orange’s coverage team all around, junior Kaleb Faust immediately fell on it, giving the Hornets yet another fresh set of downs.
“Any coach in America would like to get off on the right foot with game one, but if it’s a loss, you’ve got to make it a learning experience,” said Courtland coach J.C. Hall. “We’ve got to be smarter in special teams situations and understand on a ‘poison’ call, you don’t touch the ball.”
Junior running back Christian Simpson cruised in from 18 yards on the next snap, the eleventh of a sequence that should have been a three-and-out with favorable field position for Courtland, to give Orange the lead.
Faust then came up with his second recovery in less than 30 seconds, the Hornets’ third recovery of the night in Cougar territory, on a fumbled backfield exchange on Courtland’s first play from scrimmage in the quarter.
“Kaleb came up with some big plays there,” Lohr said. “That’s positive kamra, where things come back to you because you do the right things, and that’s what happened right there.”
The Hornets then used six running plays and three defensive penalties to cover 25 yards. Simpson busted through from three yards to make it 28-14 with 3:15 left in the third.
Courtland’s offense settled back into rhythm on its ensuing possession; however, after eight plays that stretched into the fourth quarter, a fourth-and-2 near midfield suddenly seemed like a must-convert situation. Instead, the Hornets swarmed the Cougars at the line and stopped the ball carrier for a three-yard loss.
And yet, yellow laundry quickly erased the favorable field position, as face mask and holding penalties left Orange facing second-and-40. Sophomore Jeremiah Wharton, taking over the reins at quarterback after Paul Poirier graduated, fired down the middle, but his target was unclear as a Courtland defensive back deflected the pass. In yet another cruel twist for the Cougars, Simpson was crossing from left to right at just that moment and hauled in the deflection, then continued down the right side for a gain of 46.
“When our receivers run as hard as they do, stuff comes wide open,” said Wharton, who completed 12-of-14 passes for 179 yards.
Four plays later, Chiles iced the game with a 17-yard scamper around the right end. He led all rushers with 14 carries on the night, totaling 58 yards. Simpson finished with a game-high 79 yards on 11 carries, including his two third-quarter scores. He also caught five passes for 103 yards. The Hornets finished with 360 yards of offense, nearly perfectly-divided between the air and ground.
In contrast to how badly the second half went off the rails, Courtland got off to a stellar start. After winning the toss and opting to receive, Kamari Jackson raced 31 yards on the kickoff return to set up the offense at the 46. The wing-T attack covered the distance in seven plays, all runs, with Kyron Malbon scoring the season’s first points on a 6-yarder. After Orange’s 0-yard punt midway through the second quarter, Malbon capped an eight-play, 54-yard drive with a 5-yard touchdown as the Cougars pulled even heading into the break.
“Coach Ferguson shifted our D-line down a bit to take away some of the gaps,” said Lohr, as the Hornets allowed just 25 yards on the ground in the second half. “Linebackers got freed up a little bit more and they were able to start running to the football. We started reading our reads and watching the guards a little bit better.”
Orange answered Courtland’s opening touchdown with an 11-play drive. The Hornets started at their own 19 and had to overcome three penalties.
“We’ve got to stop beating ourselves on first and second down and be able to play clean football, because there’s no play for third-and-20,” said Lohr, as the Hornets drew 12 flags for 101 yards on the night, while several more penalties were declined or offset.
There was also a bit of luck when Wharton launched an endzone pass on second-and-23 and junior receiver Brody Foran kept his hands on the ball along with a Cougar defensive back for a dual-possession touchdown. Moments later, senior linebacker MIchael Chamberlain came up with the season’s first turnover by recovering a fumbled snap at the Courtland 31.
Four plays later, Orange opened a 14-6 lead when Wharton barrelled in on a 3-yard keeper.
“I saw a little hole and just remembered what Dad told me, ‘don’t go down by one person,’” said Wharton. “All credit goes to linemen there. And those receivers, man, they all just hold on their blocks and once they do that, we execute.”
Orange (1-0) hosts Culpeper County (0-1) for its home opener at Porterfield Park next Friday.