October 30, 2013 - By Joe St. Henry
Special to The Review
Lake Orion's defense rediscovered how to tackle and made big plays in the second half of its OAA crossover game against Oak Park last Friday to spark the Dragons to a comeback win, 19-14.
The Knights outplayed the Dragons during the first half of the contest, thanks in large part to sloppy play on both sides of the ball by the home team. The game turned, however, on Oak Park turnovers and a bruising Lake Orion rushing attack in the second half.
Lake Orion finished the regular season with a 7-2 record (5-2 OAA Red), with a home playoff game this week against Romeo, which finished 5-4 in the MAC Red.
"This was a very important win for us," said Head Coach Chris Bell. "Our guys demonstrated a lot of resiliency after a tough loss the week before and it was a signature win against a very good team. Plus it guaranteed us a first round home game for the playoffs."
Oak Park came out strong to start the game, covering 81 yards in ten plays, including a fourth and ten conversion, to take the lead, 7-0.
The Knights then tried to catch the Dragons off-guard with an onside kick. But Lake Orion recovered the ball near midfield and put together its own long touchdown drive, capped by senior quarterback Connor Grant's 16-yard scoring pass to senior wide receiver Chris Leigh.
On the next Oak Park offensive series, Lake Orion senior linebacker Brad Chisholm intercepted a pass and returned the ball to the Knights' 11 yard line. Unfortunately, the Dragons offense stalled, losing six yards in three plays and then missing a field goal.
The Knights took advantage of the break and drove the ball 80 yards, the final eight on a dash into the end zone, to go up 14-7 with three minutes left in the half. After a Lake Orion punt, the Knights moved down the field again to the Dragons' ten-yard line, before time ran out in the half.
Bell said penalties and too many lost-yardage plays really cost the Dragons in the first half, plus the defense struggled to tackle properly.
"We were in the right position to make plays, but weren't wrapping up and running through tackles," the head coach said. "We talked to the guys at halftime about cleaning up the sloppy play on both offense and defense."
Whatever was said by the coaches in the locker room worked. The Dragons started the third quarter by driving 59 yards on ten plays, led by the bruising running of Leigh and classmate Dominick Giovinazzo, who scored on a ten-yard run. The extra point was missed but Lake Orion had cut the Oak Park lead to one, 14-13.
The Dragons' defense came up with another turnover on the Knights' next series, when senior Christian James intercepted a pass and returned it to the Oak Park 23 yard line. The Dragons, however, failed to take advantage of the opportunity and missed another field goal.
Lake Orion's defense came up with its third turnover of the game a few minutes later, when junior Philip Dunkley intercepted the Knights' quarterback near midfield. This time the Dragons took advantage of the Oak Park's miscue, taking only three plays to score with Leigh running through tacklers on a 28-yard run to the end zone. The two-point try failed but Lake Orion took the lead for good.
After stopping Oak Park again on downs inside Lake Orion territory, the Dragons used a number of running backs on a 17-play drive that ran out the clock.
"We returned to our base offense in the second half that produced a lot of short-yardage situations," Bell said. "It may not have been pretty, but it was effective."
The head coach added the Dragons' offensive line is coming together and has playing well the last few weeks, just in time for the playoffs.
Leigh finished with a team high 62 yards rushing on 10 carries, including two touchdowns. Giovinazzo gained 57 yards and scored on 16 carries, as well as led the team in 19 yards receiving. Grant finished the game 4-9 passing for 55 yards and one touchdown pass.
Bell said the Romeo Bulldogs will be a tough first round playoff opponent. "They are talented and good enough to be dangerous," he said. "We've played Romeo three times in the playoffs before and every game has been challenging."