SMETHPORT – The Smethport Hubbers (1-1) got off to a fast start despite a weather delay and finished with a punishing running game to topple winless Johnsonburg, 36-20.
Smethport was fueled by senior quarterback Clay Schuler, who ran for 144 yards and scored two touchdowns on the ground and one in the air. When Schuler wasn't busy racking up rushing yards, he teamed up with senior running back Karl Lightner on a cunning quarterback option play that routinely caught the Rams off guard.
Lightner eclipsed the 100-yard mark himself and scored a touchdown.
Despite the loss, the Rams had several bright spots including senior wide receiver Mitchell Holmberg, who delivered the greatest performance of his high school football career.
The standout senior caught 12 passes for 196 yards including all three of his team's touchdowns. Holmberg hooked up with senior quarterback Frank Kocjancic on a 14-yard touchdown pass on 4th-and-10 in the second quarter to trim the Hubber lead to 14-6.
He followed that up with two more scores in the fourth quarter. On 3rd-and-10 from the Hubber 12-yard line, Holmberg caught a Kocjancic offering on the left side of the field near the 2-yard line, then swiftly sidestepped a defender and advanced two more yards for the score.
His last touchdown may have been his most impressive. Facing a 22-point deficit with less than two minutes to play, Holmberg caught a short pass near the line of scrimmage but made something out of nothing as he zig-zagged through defenders on his way to a 55-yard catch-and-run touchdown to cut the margin to 36-20.
Holmberg's impact was felt on offense as well as he limited Smethport's passing game by intercepting two passes from Schuler, both in the second quarter which prevented touchdowns. His first interception was hauled in at the 4-yard line; he later picked off a Schuler offering at the 2-yard line, again preventing Smethport from crossing the goal line.
"It was quite a night for [Holmberg] and he's quite an athlete, he plays hard and one of our assistant coaches said he played like a warrior out there [Friday]," Johnsonburg head varsity football coach Jesse Schreiber said. "He left it all on the field and he had the two picks as well to go with double-figures for tackles. He's the real deal and it's great to have him on the team."
Kocjancic finished the game completing 15 passes out of 30 tries for 200 yards, three touchdowns and one interception.
However, with an effective rushing attack, the damage was already done.
A 7-play Johnsonburg drive to start the game proved fruitless but Smethport needed just four plays to score as Schuler ran it in from nine yards out for a score. The short drive was highlighted by a 48-yard reception from Schuler to Lightner up the middle.
The Rams unfortunately fumbled on their first play of their second possession, giving the Hubbers the ball on the Rams' 26-yard line.
"The start of the game killed us," Schreiber said. "We had a fumble down low but I thought our players battled hard in the second quarter but we came out a little bit flat in the third quarter and they took it to us.
"Smethport made some adjustments at halftime and we did as well but I guess our adjustments didn't work. In the fourth quarter, we played hard, we didn't quit and we have nothing to hang our heads about."
Smethport junior Ryan Stratton lost seven yards on a broken quarterback option play but Schuler shrugged off the miscue with a 34-yard touchdown pass to junior wide receiver Ryan Corbett to take a 14-0 lead.
Johnsonburg responded with an 11-play drive to end the first quarter, bringing up 4th-and-10 from the 14-yard line before Kocjancic found Holmberg in the right corner of the end zone to get on the board.
Having cut the lead to 14-6, Smethport poured on the rushing attack, advancing 38 yards on five runs before Holmberg picked off a Schuler pass at the 4-yard line. The celebration was short-lived, however, as Corbett tackled senior Shane Bickford in the end zone for a safety and a 16-6 lead with 8:29 to play in the half.
The Hubbers took over again on offense but went 3-and-out, forcing a punt. Their special teams unit was called for a horse collar penalty on the return, setting up the Rams near midfield. The visitors could do little to advance the ball, forcing a punt back to Smethport.
On a second down play, Lightner came up big on the option play with a 37-yard trek to set up shop in the red zone. Two plays later, Holmberg kept the Rams in the game again with another interception.
After both teams could do little on offense and traded possessions, Smethport threatened again with the ball near midfield but two incomplete passes and three penalties backed them up to 3rd-and-25 on their own 35-yard line. That's when senior defensive lineman Devon Horchen broke through to bring down Schuler for a 15-yard loss, bringing up 4th-and-40 and essentially sending Smethport to the locker room without further damage.
However, an 11-play drive featuring an all-rushing attack seemed to deflate the Rams' chances as Lightner crossed the goal line to start the second quarter. The lengthy drive took nearly six minutes off the clock and gave the home team a 23-6 advantage.
"It took a bit out of us with that drive," Schreiber said. "We knew we were flat and that drive hurt us. It didn't put a fork in us by any means but it hurt us.
"That took the wind out of our sails."
On their next offensive possession, Kocjancic's pass flew into the hands of Stratton, who returned in 31 yards to the Johnsonburg 3-yard line. After a 2-yard loss on first down, Stratton powered his way in on third down for a 29-6 lead.
The Rams managed two first downs on their next possession thanks to a 17-yard run from Kocjancic and an 11-yard reception from Holmberg but the drive eventually stalled and they turned the ball over on downs. Smethport would do the same after their 7-play drive stalled, giving Johnsonburg possession on their own 33-yard line in the fourth quarter.
On 3rd-and-19, Kocjancic found Holmberg for a 25-yard grab to move the chains and later hooked up with the fellow senior standout for a 36-yard bomb to put the Rams into position again. Two plays later, Holmberg had his second touchdown, this time from 12 yards out to cut the lead to 29-12. Kocjancic found senior Caleb Garvey in the end zone for a 2-point conversion to cut the margin to 15 points at 29-14.
Seeking to keep the momentum, the Rams elected to try for an onside kick which was recovered by Horchen. By then, however, Kocjancic was unable to muster more magic as after a 17-yard run, the Rams tried for the open man deep down the field several times but fell short, turning the ball over on downs.
Schuler ran the ball for the next three plays for 47 yards, including a 32-yard romp to set up shop in the red zone. He would later trot home from two yards out for a 36-14 lead.
Holmberg would tally his trifecta on the next possession as he scored on a 55-yard catch-and-run from Kocjancic to set the score at 36-20.
"We did a decent job of balancing our offense. We went to the pass a bit too much at first but we started to run the ball effectively for a bit there in the first half," Schreiber said. "I know [Kocjancic] scrambled a bit but that's part of our plan and he's on of our athletes. He will make plays with his feet as well.
"Our kids played hard, didn't give up and I thought our coaching staff did a great job."
Johnsonburg (0-2) is scheduled for a 7 p.m. game Friday, Sept. 14 at Coudersport (1-1). Smethport (1-1) will travel to Curwensville (2-0) for a 7 p.m. game Friday, Sept. 14.