Last Friday's non-league game at West Salem was supposed to provide the Lake Oswego football team with a good warm-up for this week's contest against arch-rival Lakeridge. But the Lakers almost got more than they bargained for.
The Lakers typically have no trouble getting up for a football game, especially when it counts in the standings. But the West Salem tilt was essentially a meaningless game that had virtually no bearing on the Lakers' season.
Consequently, Lake Oswego came out flat. That led to a painfully slow start for the Lakers' offense and it turned what could have been a clear-cut victory into a hard-earned 21-16 decision for the Lakers. In the process, Lake Oswego learned that the Titans are a much better football team than anyone outside of Salem gave them credit for.
'It was a tough game even to get ready and play,' Lake Oswego coach Steve Coury said. 'It was one I hated even having on the schedule. Then, I did a lousy job of getting them ready to go and we just kind of went through the motions.
'But I'll give (the Lakers) credit. They played good enough to win. (West Salem) isn't a bad team … They're a team that's second (in the Valley League) and two points out of first.'
And the Lakers made the Titans look even better than they were, for a while at least.
Things got off to an ominous start for Lake Oswego when, on the first play of the game, quarterback Duncan White uncorked a good throw on a sideline pattern and the ball went through the intended receiver's hands. Four plays later, the Lakers were forced to punt the ball away. The same thing happened the next time Lake Oswego got the ball, only this time the Lakers' receiving corps dropped two of White's passes.
It was late in the first quarter before Lake Oswego got the ball back again, and this time Coury decided to eschew the pass. Instead, he called running back Will Darkins' number four times in a row, and that's all it took for the Lakers to put the ball in the end zone.
Darkins' four-yard touchdown run, coupled with Pat Barry's extra-point kick, nearly represented the only score in the first half. The Titans, who were stymied several times by Lake Oswego's defense, finally got on the board when Kyle Farrell hit a 32-yard field goal just before intermission.
To that point, Darkins accounted for almost all of Lake Oswego's offense as he picked up 106 first-half yards on 13 carries. White, on the other hand, had a frustrating first half, completing just 1 of 6 passes for zero yards.
'We were in a lot of long-yardage situations, and that's not good for any team. And we're not a true passing team. We like to pass when we can dictate when we throw,' Coury said.
'I'm glad Duncan didn't throw any interceptions, because (West Salem) was in deep, deep coverages, dropping seven guys back. And then some kids dropped some balls and that doesn't help a quarterback.'
Lake Oswego's first-half adventures must have given West Salem some added confidence at halftime, because the Titans started the third quarter with their best drive of the game. They used 11 plays to cover 82 yards with Chase Sexton scoring the touchdown on a three-yard plunge, which gave West Salem its first lead of the game at 10-7.
But Lake Oswego answered right back on its next possession with an 11-play, 65-yard scoring drive. The series included eight plays by Darkins and seven of them came in succession. Then, just when West Salem figured out that the ball was always going to go to Darkins, the Lakers called a pass play to Jon Dulong. White hit Dulong on a 9-yard square-out and, after the kick by Barry, the Lakers had the lead for good at 14-10.
The Titans seemed poised to retake the lead with another impressive drive. But the Lakers' defense wouldn't let West Salem get a taste of the end zone this time. After seeing the Titans methodically move the ball inside the Lake Oswego 40, Darkins came up with possibly his best play of the game when he hammered West Salem's Aaron Straight after a short reception. His hit jarred the ball loose and Lake Oswego recovered.
The Lakers then put the game away with a 64-yard drive that featured nothing but running plays. That included six runs by Sam Buckingham, who finished the night with 10 carries for 57 yards. But Darkins finished off the drive with a one-yard scoring dive that made the score 21-10.
West Salem kept the game interesting with a quick scoring march that ended with Sexton's four-yard touchdown pass from Jordan Jenkins. The Titans then went for two points, in an attempt to cut their deficit to a field goal. But Jenkins couldn't find anyone open in the end zone, leaving the score at 21-16.
Lake Oswego then ran out the clock with five straight runs by Darkins, who finished the contest with 196 yards rushing on 29 carries. It was another typical performance for the senior running back, who now has 1,125 rushing for the season.
There were several times during the game that Darkins was able to clear the line scrimmage by five yards or more before the defense made its first contact. Coury said the offensive line of Kyle Mombell, Jase Grable, Sam Gerwe, Jasper Croome, Jordan Barnes and Kyle Lavender (the tight end) deserved much of the credit.
'They did a great job. And they've gotten better,' the coach said. 'Bill Hewes, our offensive line coach, and Rich Akerman have done a fantastic job with that group.'
They helped salvage what could have been a disappointing night.
'Yeah they did,' Coury said.
'We found a way to win and that's what's important,' the coach added. 'Now, it's on to what's really important and that's (the game for) the league championship.'