Joey Bruscia was asked if one of his Linganore teammates, Matt Schiller, was just as effective this season as he was a year ago.
Standing right next to Bruscia Friday at Linganore, Schiller, who tore three ligaments in his left knee in Week 8 of the 2018 season, answered the question for him.
“I lost a little bit of speed,” Schiller said.
But Bruscia, who had just thrown two touchdown passes to Schiller, including the decisive 28-yard strike with 8 minutes, 11 seconds left in Linganore’s scintillating 27-25 victory over Mervo in the Class 3A state semifinals, quickly rendered Schiller’s speed irrelevant.
“He’s huge,” Bruscia said. “He doesn’t have to be fast.”
A few moments earlier, Bruscia had estimated the 6-foot-4 Schiller’s height at 6-6 — possibly because he seems that large on the field.
“He’s such a big target,” Bruscia said. “I can throw it anywhere near him, and he’s going to catch it.”
Schiller’s impact became just as large as his height considering his second touchdown catch accounted for the final points of a victory that sent the Lancers (12-1) into their third consecutive state championship game. Linganore (12-1) will take on Damascus (11-2) at 7 p.m. Thursday at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis.
“It’s almost surreal, just looking back on everything,” Schiller said, referring to a knee injury that also caused him to miss the entire 2018-19 basketball season. “I’ve worked so hard, and it’s just awesome. I love it.”
Schiller’s contributions on Friday weren’t an added luxury for a Lancers team that had worn out opponents with their punishing ground game. They were a necessity considering the Mustangs (12-1) had shut out eight opponents this season, and if they didn’t totally shut down dynamic Linganore running back Xander McClure, they certainly stopped him from taking over the game.
McClure still showed samples of his brilliance, twisting and turning through holes on runs of 49, 21, 18, 16 and 15 yards. But Mervo also stopped McClure, who finished with 162 yards and two touchdowns on 29 carries, for no gain on 10 occasions.
Mervo was so intent on neutralizing McClure, they often had seven or more defenders on the line of scrimmage in anticipation of Linganore’s rushing attack. The Lancers countered with the play-action pass, as Bruscia faked handoffs to McClure before finding Schiller in the middle of the field for scoring strikes.
“We felt like we might be able to hit them with vertical [routes], and Joey made a great read,” Linganore coach Rick Conner said. “He looked the one [defender] off, threw to the other side, and it was wide open.”
Schiller’s final touchdown reception marked the fourth lead change of the second half as Mervo somehow found a way to overcome 14 penalties to stay in contention. They did so through the big-play ability of quarterback Kelin Kimbrough, running back Jarrett Gasque and wide receiver Malik Lindsay. Gasque finished with 165 rushing yards on just nine carries, including a 66-yard touchdown catch in the first quarter and a 59-yard touchdown run that gave the Mustangs an 18-14 lead with 10:21 left in the third quarter.
But the Lancers defense found a way to make big plays when they needed them most, with Ryan Barthlow’s interception of a Kimbrough pass at the Mustangs 22-yard line setting up a 16-yard McClure touchdown run. On the Mustangs’ next drive, Bruscia picked off a Kimbrough pass at the Lancers’ 4-yard line while Nick Vance forced a turnover on downs inside the 20-yard line in the second quarter with a sack.
Mervo also turned the ball over on downs at Linganore’s 35 in the first quarter.
“These guys, their resiliency and toughness are things that are really surfacing right now,” Conner said. "When you win two-point games and one-touchdown games ... your kids are doing a great job of hanging in there.
“To be honest with you, we have some great assistant coaches who get our kids ready, and they do a great job.”