By WES FERGUSON
The Lehman Lobos are learning a hard lesson early in the 2012 football season – it only takes a handful of mistakes to turn a close game into a blowout.
In their season opener on Friday, a humbling 43-7 home loss to new Class 5A school Cedar Ridge, the Lobos were hanging in there with the Raiders through two quarters and entered halftime one touchdown away from tying the game.
The tide turned in a matter of minutes at Shelton Stadium, though. Lehman’s opening drive of the third quarter was cut short when the Raiders bottled up running back Paul Brown in the backfield, and he coughed up the football on his own 10-yard line. On the Lobos’ next offensive opportunity, Cedar Ridge blocked Josh Guerrero’s punt for the second time in the game, and this block came deep inside Lehman territory.
Following the back-to-back turnovers, you could almost feel the energy draining away from the dejected Lobos.
“It’s 15-7 at halftime, and we’re fighting our butts off,” said head coach Todd Raymond. “We come out and fumble the ball on the 10, make a special teams miscue, and we just can’t do that to our defense at all. That’s really hard to overcome, especially when you’re as young and inexperienced as we are.”
The Raiders capitalized on both bad plays for easy touchdowns, sparking a scoring frenzy that didn’t stop until the Raiders pulled their starters in the fourth quarter.
“We shot ourselves in the foot,” said center Cruz Banda, one of just two seniors starting on the Lobos offense. “We had a lot of mental mistakes, a lot of false starts, fumbles and miscommunications.”
Led by Raiders junior quarterback Michael McCann, Cedar Ridge put up 371 total yards, more than twice the amount of the Lobos. Lehman opened the game with eight straight running plays and relied almost solely on its ground game for offensive production, with Brown leading all rushers with 88 yards on 23 carries. Guerrero, the starting quarterback, mustered 30 passing yards and four completions on 11 attempts.
Raymond said he called so many running plays to start the game because he was trying to build his young offense’s confidence.
“We were trying to calm our nerves. You’ve got to remember, there is one senior on offense who played the exact same position he played last year,” Raymond said. “They were very nervous, very uptight before the game, so I was trying to get them to calm their nerves a little bit.”
The strategy seemed to work at first. With such a lopsided final score, it’s easy to forget that Lehman’s offense was the first to strike the end zone after receiving a gift from the deft play of defensive teammate Ben Mitchell.
Mitchell, a senior linebacker, singlehandedly stopped a Raiders drive midway through the first quarter when he dropped into pass coverage and intercepted a tight spiral that McCann threw over the middle of the field. The Lobos offense returned to the field, this time led by backup Lobos quarterback Paul Matthews, who caught the Raiders defense napping when he burst through the line of scrimmage for a 20-yard gain and a first down only 10 yards away from the goal line.
Two straight handoffs to Brown paid off when he scored easily after runs of eight and two yards.
McCann and the Raiders answered with a pair of touchdowns in the second quarter, then exploded for 21 points in the third frame to put the game out of reach. The Raiders picked up an easy win on a monumental night — their first varsity football game in school history after being split off from Stony Point High School in Round Rock.
Cedar Ridge head coach Todd Ford, who left his job as offensive coordinator of the University of North Texas in 2010 to build the Raiders’ program up from the ground, said the Raiders have worked hard to prove they can compete against top-level football competition.
“I don’t know about statement wins,” Ford said. “We have a goal of getting better each week. With these kids that’s exactly how we take it. We feel like if we can take care of ourselves, then we have an opportunity to take advantage of some things.”
For the Lobos, however, the disappointing night showed they still have a lot of work to do as they learn Raymond’s up-tempo offense and mentally rigorous style of play. The offense’s drives were marred by the two blocked punts, penalties and several fumbles.
“I’m a little disappointed, but I know these first few games don’t really count for us,” Banda said. “It’s a chance for us to get better, so I’m taking this as a lesson for what we need to work on.”
Raymond commended the effort given by his shorthanded defense. The Lobos were playing without senior defensive tackle Kris Hernandez, who missed the game after suffering an injury in practice on Wednesday, and speedy junior Moises Bustamante, who injured his knee on the opening kickoff. Cornerback Kyron Morrissette played with a slightly injured ankle.
Junior Foster Rico had Lehman’s second interception of the game, picking off Cedar Ridge backup quarterback Buddy Hill in the fourth quarter.
Brown said it’s time for the offense to rise to the defense’s level of play.
“During practice, you think you’re doing great until you bring it out on the field and see what really happens. We came out and played hard, but the more mental mistakes you make, the worse it’s going to get,” he said. “We just have to get our mind right and be ready for next Friday. I know how our team plays, and if we’re on right, we’re going to keep up with anybody.”
Lehman plays again Friday at Elgin. Kickoff is 7:30 p.m.