Special teams has been a huge advantage for the Kentucky Warriors (8-1) all season, and Saturday was no exception.
With the Kentucky trailing the Cincinnati Xtreme (4-5) early in the third quarter, Warrior safety Snook Martin blocked an Xtreme punt. Cornerback Mason Jordan returned the block for a touchdown, a score that sparked a dominant second half for the Warriors.
“It was huge,” said Warrior head coach Jamie Rice. “Our special teams, you can’t say enough about those guys. Sometimes those guys get overlooked, but they’ve huge for us all year.”
With the win, the Warriors wrap up the third seed in the NFFL playoffs, meaning they will play at least one postseason game at home in Spartan Stadium.
“We need to clean up a lot of our mental mistakes,” Rice said of the remainder of the season. “We have some wrinkles here and there, we’re just trying to clean some stuff up that can kill drives.”
Those mental errors were the undoing for the Warriors early in the game, as a fumble on the first possesion allowed the Xtreme to take an early 7-0 lead. With the Xtreme defense keying on Kentucky’s leading rusher, Jontez Jones, the Warriors needed to find another weapon. Luckily, Luke Brown made the trip to Cincinnati.
On the Warriors’ next possession, Brown capped a 75-yard Warrior drive with a three-yard touchdown run to give Kentucky a 7-6 lead. The touchdown was the first two on the day for Brown, who would also finish with 119 rushing yards.
“It’s really hard to shut both (Jones and Brown) down,” Rice said. “If you prepare for Jontez, you’ll jump outside and inherently be a little softer in the middle. When you become a little softer in the middle, Luke Brown is going to take advantage of that.”
Later in the half, the Warriors found themselves behind yet again after a seven-play scoring drive that gave the Xtreme a 12-7 lead. Cincinnati had the ball again, and was looking to put the game away before the teams entered the locker room at halftime. But Warrior defensive back Geoffrey White stepped in front of an Xtreme pass and returned it 20 yards for a Warrior touchdown. Just like that, Kentucky was back in front.
“That was enormous,” Rice said. “We were kind of struggling as a team a little bit. We were able to put some pressure on the quarterback and make him throw the ball before he wanted to.”
Keying on halftime adjustments, the Warriors took complete control of the game in the second half, outscoring the Xtreme 21-7. Offensively, Kentucky was firing on all cylinders. Quarterback Jonathon Schweickart was efficient, as he spread the ball around to five different receivers on his way to a 12-26 day for 156 yards. Defensively, the Warriors were containing the Xtreme’s short passing game, as linebacker Nehemiah Phillips, defensive tackle Dro’ore Taylor and defensive backs Chance Freeman and Snook Martin all recorded more than 10 tackles. But once again, Kentucky’s biggest advantage came on special teams.
Filling in at punter for Schweickart, Brown kept the Xtreme pinned deep in its own end all night with a 38-yard average. At one point, he pinned Cincinnati inside its own five yard line. The Xtreme went three-and-out and shanked a punt, giving the Warriors the ball at the Xtreme 24 yard line. The sequence set up Brown’s second touchdown of the day, a score that would put Kentucky ahead for good.
“That was big,” Rice said. “The field position game against a defense like that, that’s really big.”
Because they hold the tie breaker with the Kings Comets (7-2), Kentucky is guaranteed a home game for the first round of the postseason. With only one game left in the regular season (August 2 vs. Carter County), Rice is prepared for a grind in the coming weeks.
“It’s going to be a tough playoff run,” Rice said. “It’s three straight weeks of tough, hard-nosed football. We’re trying to get our minds right for that.”
Alex Hider can be reached at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1931 or on Twitter @PDTSportsWriter