By JOE RHOADES
The first 17 minutes of Friday’s Week 0 opener between Armstrong and Freeport was a back-and-forth battle in which both defenses were front and center. Both teams failed to put any points on the board in the first quarter, with both signal callers under constant duress.
The final 31 minutes were far different as the River Hawks outscored the Yellowjackets 34-0, totaling 34 points total in the second quarter en route to a 48-14 victory.
The quarterback matchup was one of the many anticipated storylines heading into the game. Armstrong returned junior quarterback and 2020 WPIAL passing leader, Cadin Olson. The Jackets also brought back its starter, but from 2019 instead. Freeport’s Garrett King stepped on the field for the first time in nearly two years after a triumphant battle with cancer. Both Olsen and King were pressured heavily in the first quarter, leading to little in the passing game. The River Hawks featured a young offensive line, while Freeport faced injuries up front along with inexperience of their own. Olsen was able to turn things around, netting 267 yards in the air on 18 completions. King was never able to find his footing, eclipsing just 69 passing yards, 24 of which came on his lone TD pass in the second quarter to Jackson Reiser.
FOUR MINUTE DRILL
Once Armstrong’s protection began to improve, so did Olsen’s numbers. The River Hawks passed for three touchdowns over the final four minutes of the first half, each scored by a different receiver. Connor Cigola, Noah Shuttleworth, and Dozick Zablocki were each recipients of Olsen touchdown passes. Armstrong’s success in the air had much to do with the balance it displayed, using the run game to open up and buy time for its all-state quarterback.
Despite their mascot and namesake, Freeport was the team that was bit by the injury bug leading up to and in Friday’s contest. Injuries sustained during their scrimmage heading into Week 0, and those during the game itself left the Yellowjackets depleted and shorthanded. Cramps were a major factor with the humidity and high temperature caused players to drop like flies — or in this case like Yellowjackets. Key losses on both the offensive and defensive line left the team with almost completely different units than they started the game with. King, along with two of his top weapons, Vinnie Clark and Ben Lane, also missed significant portions of the game battling injury.
THE TAKE AWAY
We’ll never know what this game might have looked like if both teams were able to field their healthiest rosters, but what was clear is that Armstrong adjusted to the circumstances and made the proper adjustments after an early scoreless drought. Freeport’s pass rush wasn’t as dominant as it was in the first quarter, but still gave Olsen fits throughout the remainder of the game. Armstrong head coach Frank Fabian opened up the playbook and incorporated a shorter passing game that led to a 50-yard touchdown pass to Shuttleworth that had no more than five air yards. This technique also proved important as it began to open up things deeper down field. Armstrong did drop balls at key moments, but were able to overcome those thanks to proficiency in the red zone.
GROSS EMBROIDERY PLAYER-OF-THE-GAME: ALEX PATTON
Several players were worthy of Gross Embroidery Player-of-the-Game honors, including Olsen, who was strong despite the breakdowns, or Shuttleworth amassing 162 yards receiving. Armstrong’s ability to run the ball with power might have been the most crucial element to their success. Not only did it swing the time of possession squarely in favor of Armstrong, it kept the Freeport defense honest. Alex Patton was the cog in the Armstrong run game that always seemed to drag a would-be tackler an extra two yards — plays that contributed to wearing down the Yellowjackets. Patton scored the first touchdown of the game, with a scamper up the middle from six yards out that jumpstarted an Armstrong offense that put 48 points on the board in 31 minutes.