Jackets head out on the road for ranked showdown
There has already been a big game on Denison's schedule and it will always be held in the greatest regard.
But the one the Yellow Jackets are about to play continues to get circled wherever it appears in the district order.
There may not be as much hate for the Lovejoy Leopards as there is for the Sherman Bearcats, but the feelings involving these felines aren’t that far apart.
Denison is looking to turn the tables on a match-up it has never won by relying on an experienced defense that has come so close to getting the job done the last two seasons.
With a bevy of three-year starters about to make their final stand against their main road block to the top of the district standings, Denison (2-0) travels to Lovejoy (3-0, 1-0) for 7-5A (II) play at 7 p.m. on Friday night.
It is a match-up of state-ranked teams — Lovejoy has been No. 3 since the preseason poll while Denison moved into the top 10 last week at ninth and the moved up to No. 7 ahead of the clash.
Part of the reason the Jackets joined the rankings were their performances in beating Sherman and Fort Worth Brewer. The first-team defense held Sherman to 13 points and Brewer to seven as Denison built a five-touchdown lead early in the fourth quarter of a 42-21 victory.
The success that has continued under coordinator Todd Wallis did not surprise new head coach Brent Whitson. He kept him on staff to run a defense which brought back seven starters.
“What I expected — very talented, fast, violent, experienced kids,” Whitson said. “Todd takes every first down personally and the kids do to.”
Jalik Lewis has been a three-year starter at corner and De'Teaurean Johnson starts on the opposite side after moving from linebacker. They have come up with big plays and will be tested by a high-flying attack. Whitson pointed out the newcomers in the back end — safeties Braden Maxwell and Kenyan Kelly — have stepped right in to some big shoes and held their own.
That latest performance was two weeks ago as the Jackets come off their bye, an early one for a coaching staff with many new faces used to a break later in the season.
“I’d never had a Labor Day off before. I felt like a slacker,” Whitson said. “We went back to fundamentals. Lifted like it was off-season. We healed and did some personnel moves that we think make us better. Even having just a four-day week, we got the work we needed to get done.”
Whitson isn’t worried about the layoff coming after the strong start and going into such a crucial contest.
“From our standpoint, our kids came off a long layoff and jumped right into a game that was our Super Bowl,” Whitson said, referring to the Battle of the Ax. “It’s not unfamiliar for them to be off and dropped into a huge ballgame.”
Lovejoy went 13-1 last season, reaching the region final before falling, 52-48, against eventual state champion Aledo. Among those victories was a 31-24 comeback against Denison in the only single-digit win the Leopards had.
The Jackets led 24-10 at the start of the fourth quarter but a TD with 19 seconds left after Denison failed on fourth-and-one at its 29 with 1:28 remaining in a tie game ended up being the difference.
The final score matched the Jackets’ overtime loss to Lovejoy in 2019 — in which they led 24-10 in the middle of the third and 24-17 in the middle of the fourth before coming up short in the extra frame.
“We had leads. We have to learn how to finish,” Whitson said.
Lovejoy has won all seven meetings since 2012 with the last four being decided by 11 points or less.
“It has been winnable. The last three times has been winnable,” Whitson said. “If we’re going to talk about change and flip it that’s what we’re talking about. As a staff we have to use that as a confidence builder.”
While the Jackets had their bye, Lovejoy opened district play with a 69-21 victory against Princeton.
The Leopards opened up a 49-7 lead at half-time and finished with 605 yards. Alexander Franklin completed 21-of-33 passes for 380 yards and five touchdowns with an interception, Jaxson Lavender totaled 10 catches for 164 yards and three scores, Parker Livingston added four receptions for 125 yards and a TD and Matthew Mainord had 91 yards and two touchdowns on eight carries.
Franklin, a sophomore, has stepped right in after the graduation of two-time district MVP and third-team all-state pick Ralph Rucker, now at Oklahoma, and so far has completed 43-of-67 passes for 707 yards and 14 touchdowns with two interceptions.
His favorite target has been Lavender, a junior with 19 receptions for 371 yards and six TDs and has filled the void of first-team all-state pick Reid Westervelt, who is now at Rice.
A new face to the receiving corps is tight end Omari Murdock, a 6-foot-5 tight end who transferred from Allen for his senior year.
Mainord tops the team in rushing with 31 carries for 178 yards and four touchdowns but Noah Naidoo isn’t far behind with 22 carries for 157 yards and two scores.
Lovejoy opened the season with a 44-14 victory over Bryan and then rolled to a 71-7 victory against Sulphur Springs — doing all that with no returning starters on the offensive line.
“They’re talented and very well-coached,” Whitson said. “They big-play people so much. The get a lot of short fields in the kicking game.”
The 253 yards allowed to Princeton last week were a season-high and the Leopards have a combined 141-14 scoring advantage in the first half.
The defense is led by a pair of talented linebackers — senior Phillip Joest was first-team all-state while sophomore Payton Pierce started at Allen last season and already has offers from Arkansas, Missouri, Tulsa and Virginia Tech.
District 7-5A (II)
What: Denison at Lovejoy
When: 7 p.m. Friday
Radio: KMKT 93.1 FM