Last Friday, in a Class 3A state football quarterfinal, North Point High School attempted to solve the riddle that has confounded teams for most of the season.
The Eagles essentially sold out to stop Linganore’s vaunted running game, moving all 11 defenders within a few yards of the line of scrimmage on both plays.
It was yet another team daring the Lancers to throw a pass, a trend that has grown as the season has progressed.
“It’s no secret we are going to try and run the ball,” said Linganore senior fullback and part-time quarterback Joey Bruscia.
Yet, by the end of the game, the North Point defense looked as helpless as just about everybody else.
Xander McClure had rushed for nearly 200 yards and a pair of touchdowns, his latest scintillating performance in a season full of them. Fellow junior Brady Domroe plowed over the goal line on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line for the game-winning touchdown with just over two minutes to play.
And North Point (9-3) was left to digest a stinging 35-28 setback, wondering how it got run over by the train when it saw the lights coming from a mile away.
“We have a very physical style of offense,” Bruscia said. “We are going to try to beat you up front. We have a great [offensive] line and good running backs, too.”
Linganore (11-1), which will host Mervo (12-0) out of Baltimore City at 7 p.m. Friday, had advanced to the 3A state semifinals for the third consecutive season with what some would call a one-dimensional offense.
The Lancers have attempted fewer than 100 passes this season. They have never thrown it less in Rick Conner’s 18 seasons as the team’s head coach, according to Conner.
But others, particularly those on or around the team, view it as a masterful job of playing to the team’s strength and maximizing the skill sets of the current players.
“We lost a three-year starter [at quarterback],” Conner said of the 6-foot-5, 230-pound Ryan Leyh, who graduated last June after leading Linganore to back-to-back trips to the state final, including the 3A championship in 2017. “We were looking for someone to come in and play like Ryan, and we just didn’t have that kid right now. We had to reinvent the position to a certain extent.”
Promising it wasn’t going to be a fancy offense from the first practice back in August, Conner and his offensive assistants, coordinator Chris O’Connor, Jordan Dixon and Mike Rich, developed an attack that emphasizes the run, but also mixes in a pass or two when the opportunity presents itself.
Last week, with North Point biting hard to stop the run on virtually every play, Linganore was able to effectively mix in some passing through play-action fakes or gadget plays.
During the victory, four different players wound up taking a snap and attempting a pass. They were the team’s primary quarterbacks, sophomore Timmy Conner and Bruscia, senior Matt Schiller and McClure.
Taking occasional direct snaps on running plays, McClure pulled up on one in the final two minutes of the first half and tossed a 38-yard touchdown pass to teammate Johan Samayoa, who was well behind the defense.
Samayoa, Bruscia, Schiller, lineman Dustin Keith and defensive backs Will Coletti and Ben Musselman are five seniors who have made significant contributions to each Linganore team that reached the state semifinals over the last three seasons.
“People are going to say we have a one-dimensional offense. But I think we definitely have a passing aspect, too,” said Bruscia, who has passed and run for roughly 300 yards this season. “Obviously, running is what helped us to be successful all season. But I feel we are a very versatile team.”
McClure is small in stature at 5-foot-9, 175 pounds, but he’s a workhorse in the weight room, and he has authored a season for the ages.
Despite defenses geared to stop him in just about every game, McClure has still rushed for 2,143 yards and 18 touchdowns on 247 carries this season.
“Xander is a stud, the Player of the Year if you were to ask me,” Bruscia said. “He’s been super good all year. It’s not at all unexpected. You see him in the weight room, and you see how hard he has been working all offseason. You know, he is only a junior. Next year could be even better for him.”
McClure, for his part, hasn’t shied away from the heavier workload. He has surpassed 30 carries in just about every big game Linganore has played this season.
“I actually wasn’t expecting all that,” he said. “I was ready for it, obviously, and I love it. I have a lot of trust in the offensive play-calling and the line up front to help get me through the defense.”
And so the riddle continues to confound. How do you stifle McClure and the Linganore running game?
No in-state team has managed to do it so far. Mervo will be the latest to try Friday night with a berth in the state final on the line.