Irmo coach Bob Hanna said opening the season against South Pointe was a traumatic experience for some of his first-year offensive line starters. The Stallions sacked Irmo quarterback Demetrius Lewis five times and hurried him another six in a 21-17 win.
The Yellow Jackets’ veteran coach feels like his blocking group will be better prepared for the awesome task of again trying to slow the Stallion defensive front when the two teams meet for the second time this season Friday night, this occasion being the first round of the Class AAAA Division II playoffs.
“Our offensive line has grown up. Most of them were all first-year starters and they’ve all got a full season under their belt,” said Hanna. “The thing that I see that’s hard for us is just their physicality. They’ve got a big defensive line, and they’re quick and nasty.”
Eleven weeks after their first meeting, South Pointe (9-2, No. 8 seed) and Irmo (6-5, No. 9 seed) will get a progress report Friday night in Rock Hill. Facing a regular season opponent in the postseason has its unique wrinkles, but the idea is to avoid paralysis by analysis, especially when the game film comes from the season’s first week.
“We get three videos of them, and we meet Saturday. We do the same thing that we do during the regular year,” said Herron, whose South Pointe program has never lost in the first round of the state playoffs and is 18-4 all-time in the postseason.
It’s kind of an unwritten postseason rule that teams share film of the last three regular season games. Irmo and South Pointe will have four game tapes to watch.
“We’ll go back and watch our game again and then watch what they did to us,” said Herron. “That was the first game of the year, so it’s almost not that important. We look for personnel changes - there’s a few guys missing - but they look like the same Irmo team as before.”
Both sides entered November in good form. South Pointe has won its last five games, while Irmo prevailed in six of seven following an 0-4 start. Both sides had important players dismissed or suspended from the team, quarterback Tay Blake in South Pointe’s case, and 1,000-yard rusher Shyheim Copeland in Irmo’s. Young players in each camp have matured physically and mentally, especially a youthful Stallion squad.
“I think we’ve gotten more confident and we’re obviously playing well on defense, which is always what we hang our hat on,” said Herron, citing the ceaseless source of his team’s enhanced self-belief. “Offensively, I think we’re getting to where we’ve worked out all the kinks.”
The big thing for South Pointe has been creating turnovers. The Stallion defense has forced 33 this season, including 21 interceptions from an inexperienced defensive backfield that will feature three sophomore starters Friday night. Juniors Marveon Mobley (7) and Devion Williams (6) lead the pick party, brought about in large part by the incessant pass rush that Herron’s team gets from its veteran defensive line. Senior Matt Newman leads the group with 84 tackles and 12 sacks, fellow senior Tay Robinson-Locke has 10 tackles-for-loss, and Shrine Bowl selection Zeek Rodney is finally 100 percent after laboring through the first half of the season with a gimpy hamstring. He’s still got nine sacks and a team-high 13 tackles-for-loss on the year.
“That defensive front is incredible,” Herron said. “They’ve been so - oh, I don’t know what the word is - dominant I guess, that it helps the whole unit.”
The Stallions have leaned on other parts of their team while the offense continues to develop behind sophomore quarterback Zaylin Burris. In Burris’ six games at the South Pointe helm, the Stallions have attempted 50 fewer passes than they did with Blake at quarterback in the first five games, preferring instead to run the ball for an average of 187 yards on the ground in Burris’ starts. In those same six games, the Stallion defense has scored six defensive touchdowns, a definite boon to the cause.
Far from running the score up on teams with dynamic offense, the Stallions have head-locked opponents and subdued them to the turf. South Pointe’s run defense has only allowed two 100-yard-plus efforts this season, and only one opponent - Northwestern - amassed more than 300 yards of total offense against the Stallions.
Behind 6-foot-3 senior Demetrius Lewis, who has thrown for 2,177 yards and 22 touchdowns with just six interceptions, Irmo will try and become the second. Hanna said he’s pleased with his signal caller’s development this season after a rocky start to the campaign.
“If we didn’t have a passing game, I’d be extremely worried,” Hanna said. “We’ve got way more confidence in him now than we did in the first game.”
The big thing for Lewis and the Yellow Jackets was cutting down on giveaways. Irmo was negative-14 in turnover margin after the first three games of the season. A decrease in turnovers coincided with a sudden turn in fortunes once region play began.
South Pointe’s pilfering defense will certainly test that improvement. If the Stallions run roughshod over Irmo’s backfield Friday night, spare a thought for Hanna; it would be the fifth time he’s watched that happen this week.
“We opened up with them,” he said, “and hopefully, we don’t close the season with them.”
Bret McCormick • 803-329-4032; Twitter: @BretJust1T