3A West Final: Burns overwhelmed on big stage
By Josh Hoke
LAWNDALE — The scenes looked eerily similar 45 minutes before Friday’s Class 3A state semifinal and 45 minutes before the end: thousands of Burns fans sitting in their cars.
The enthusiasm the large home crowd carried into Ron Greene Stadium quickly evaporated and early in the second half of West Rowan’s 33-7 victory, the majority of them were headed for home. It was a shocking end for a team that, like the Falcons in past years, seemed destined for a berth in the state championship.
Instead, the Bulldogs (13-2) were overwhelmed by the three-time state champions, likely a combination of big-stage nerves and perhaps the underrated strength of this year’s team from West Rowan.
“They are so good up front,” said Burns coach Matt Beam, who heaped praised upon Scott Young’s Falcons. “They are really good on the offensive and defensive lines. They are powerful and explosive. They moved us off the ball and pushed us around a bit up front. When you can’t run it and have to throw it all the time, it doesn’t make for a good recipe.”
Beam eschewed the idea that the stage might have been too big for his players, who have ridden a wave of momentum all season but aren’t hardened playoff veterans like the Falcons. Still, it hard to imagine they weren’t somewhat awed by the enormity of the moment and the opportunity the reach a stage that has become a second home for West Rowan — the state championship game.
“I don’t think it was (West Rowan’s mystique),” Beam said. “I think we just got beat by a good football team. I don’t think there was a mindset of ‘Oh, we’re worried about playing them.’ It was a just that you were playing a good football team. There is no shame in losing to a good football team.”
Burns has been a good football team all season, but West Rowan’s quick start never gave the Bulldogs an opportunity to show off their offensive and defensive prowess.
Even though Burns had some good fortune on the first play from scrimmage, Dinkin Miller’s apparent 70-yard touchdown run was a harbinger of the good things to come for West Rowan. An illegal block negated the score but the Falcons went up a score a few minutes later.
Burns quarterback Brandon Littlejohn poorly executed an option snap on the Bulldogs’ second play from scrimmage and West Rowan recovered the loose ball, helping the Falcons build a two-score lead less than five minutes into the game.
Everybody in the stadium seemed to be stunned. The Falcons and their supporters seemed surprised how easily they had taken control, while the Bulldogs and their fans were simply shocked how quickly their dream season had unraveled before their eyes.
“We felt like the hardest part of their team to play against was their defensive front,” Young said. “When our offensive line came over and told coach (Joe) Nixon, our offensive coordinator, that they had them, we knew (the victory was inevitable).”
Though Miller and Co. put up big offensive numbers, Burns’ inability to maintain any offensive continuity certainly was a contributing factor. Despite have one of the most prolific quarterbacks (Littlejohn) and tailbacks (Darius Ramsey) in Cleveland County history, the Bulldogs struggled to compile 200 total yards.
Littlejohn was just 9-of-28 passing in the game and just 4-of-16 in the first half, when the Falcons built a 26-7 advantage. Ramsey rushed for just 31 yards on 15 yards, though he did catch three passes for 50 yards, including Burns’ lone touchdown as the first half expired.
“He was as good of a running back as we’ve seen all year,” Young said. “We knew that coming in. We knew we had to leave two linebackers in the box. We could not let their spread formations get our linebackers displaced from the box. If they did that, they would kill us. We knew if they were going to beat us, they were going to have to beat us with the pass.”
Littlejohn and the Bulldogs couldn’t do that often enough, with errant throws and drops dooming Burns’ offense. It certainly wasn’t their best showing, but the Bulldogs admitted that the Falcons played a large role in their undoing.
“It’s all we had,” Ramsey said of his team’s effort. “We put a lot of hard work into this. Every day we worked for it. We just came up short. We made some mistakes. Life has to go on.”
“It was tough. We prepared ourselves all week not to make mistakes and to be ready for what they were going to throw at us. We just didn’t execute like we should have. They are good, probably the best front we’ve seen all year. I wish them luck.”