By Jason Maholy
It has to be encouraging when a team's top wide receiver steps in to spell the starting quarterback for a play and promptly runs for a long touchdown.
Shepard first-year head coach John Rone is hopeful Chris Harrison doesn't have to step in under center frequently, but he had no problem with the senior wideout taking a snap and running 60 yards to the end zone in last week's 46-9 win over Stagg.
Harrison finished with 89 rushing yards on three carries, and returned a punt 75 yards for a touchdown as part of an offensive explosion that included 309 rushing yards and four touchdowns from Rishard Blake.
Blake, the Astros' actual quarterback, ran for 83 yards and three scores, and completed 9 of 20 passes for 163 yards and a touchdown. Senior running back Marcus Terry had nine carries for 83 yards and a touchdown, and senior wide receiver Yousef Isa caught four balls for 120 yards and a score.
After playing for 29 consecutive years from 1977 to 2005, Shepard and Stagg were playing for the first time in 13 seasons. The Chargers topped the Astros, 33-7, in last meeting, which came during Stagg's last winning season and was the last time they made the playoffs.
Shepard came into 2018 having made the postseason seven times in the past nine years, and returned several key players on both sides of the ball from last year's 8-2 team.
The Astros offense took a hit losing running back Neiko Carter to graduation and quarterback Marcus Porter to transfer, but Rone still has an arsenal of weapons at his disposal, and they have through two games have performed as game-changing players are expected. Rone said their success is simply a product of great natural ability enhanced and refined through practice.
“They're great athletes that work hard, and when you put that athleticism together with hard work it equals what they've put on display so far this season,” he said. “Guys who can turn nothing into something, and something into something huge.”
In Week 1 on the road against Leyden, Blake threw a 21-yard touchdown pass to Harrison for what proved to be the winning score with 46 second left in the game. This time, the Shepard offense was clicking on all cylinders, and had built a 26-9 lead before lightning forced a 95-minute delay.
Blake was looking especially sharp.
“He was lights out, making great reads in the run game, throwing some great passes, and the scramble he had for a touchdown was just remarkable,” Rone said. “I mean, the kid made about four guys miss in the space of about five yards and took it to the house.”
Blake, who started the first three games of 2017 at quarterback before being moved to wide receiver, came to Rone before the season and told the coach he wanted to win the quarterback job.
“And he's been there, hasn't missed a day and continues to work, he's hungry for it and he's showing it right now.”
Third-year starting center Bobby Quick and senior guard Damekeo Murray anchor an offensive line that is working to be more consistent. If the other linemen can continue to improve, they will combine with the Astros' stable of playmakers to make good things happen, Rone said.
The Shepard defense is also working hard, Rone said, and seeks to capture the spirit of the Astros' fabled Orange Crush defense of the late 80s and early 90s. Da'Marco Washington, a senior cornerback, leads a secondary that snagged three interceptions against Stagg. Washington had one of those picks and junior defensive back Andrew Wright grabbed two.
“The kids are excited about having that hard-nosed, tough, back-down-from-no-one Orange Crush mentality,” he said. “They want to have that out on the field and they're out to prove that, so it's been what we'd hoped and expected, to a large extent.”