Aaron Colen, Sports Editor, Aaron.Colen@chickashanews.com
In the 2012 playoffs, the Blanchard High School football team has been north to Cushing, south to Madill, then back home to Blanchard. All that traveling for the last three games has led them to a rematch with a district rival for a chance to play in the 3A state championship game.
The Lions will play the Jones Longhorns (11-2, 5-1) on Saturday in the state semifinals at Putnam City Stadium, giving them a chance to prove that it wasn't luck when they beat the Longhorns on Oct. 12 in Jones.
Blanchard, which was undefeated at the time, beat Jones 28-25 in that game, although Jones went on to win the 3A-1 district championship when Blanchard lost to Tuttle.
"Jones tries to play that down like they didn't play very well and that's the reason they lost, and the two toughest teams they played were OCS and Tuttle," Blanchard head coach Jeff Craig said. "You hear things like that, and our deal is that we won the first outing, and we need to show up and prove it wasn't a fluke."
Blanchard jumped out to a 14-0 lead early in the first quarter of the Oct. 12 game, but by the third quarter Jones had caught back up with two touchdowns of its own. Problem for Jones was the fact that the Longhorns went for two after both touchdowns and failed to convert each time.
On Jones' third touchdown, which cut Blanchard's lead to 21-18 with 8:40 left in the third quarter, Jones kicker Nathan Lee missed an extra point.
"They seemed to be chasing points all night long after that," Craig said. "They've got a quality, quality kicker, so that was kind of odd for him to be off like that. That could be a big factor in Saturday's game, too."
Blanchard left some points on the board in that game as well. Several times, the Lions failed to score in the red zone, keeping Jones in the game. Taking advantage while deep in Jones territory will be a crucial on Saturday, said Blanchard receiver Zach Hill.
"Not turning the ball over, and scoring inside the 20," Hill said when asked what the keys to beating Jones were for the offense. "That's what killed us last time. We didn't score three or four times inside the 20, and it made it a really close game."
Penalties were also a problem for the Lions, and Craig said his team has to make sure not to shoot itself in the foot if it wants to beat a team as good as Jones.
"We had some mistakes deep in their territory that cost us possessions," Craig said. "When you play people like that, a good team like Jones, you can't jump offsides or get holding penalties or things like that, which really cost us drives and shut us down."
The Blanchard defense has been playing well lately, allowing only seven points in the last two games, including a shutout win over Hilldale on Nov. 23. Earlier this season against Jones, the Lions intercepted Jones quarterback David Cornwell three times.
"I feel like we've been dialing up the pressure a little bit," defensive end Gage Wimer said. "We've put in a few more blitzes, and also just getting all our players healthy, the combination of everything has helped."
Blanchard will be trying to put pressure on Cornwell again Saturday, to try to force him out of his comfort zone and into mistakes.
"The biggest key is keeping them in the pocket," Wimer said. "He seems to get kind of rattled anyway, so just keep him in the pocket, and if he does scramble then our secondary needs to stay on the guy closest to them."
Before the Jones game, Blanchard was 6-0, and its closest win was a 23-point home win over Lindsay in week two. Both Wimer and Hill said the close call at Jones was a wake-up call.
"We hadn't been tested like that all year," Hill said.
Still, the team learned some lessons from the win, Wimer said.
"I think it just taught us how to not give up if we do fall back," Wimer said. "We hadn't been in that situation before, it just showed that we've got mental toughness."
Blanchard will need mental toughness in other ways in order to stay focused for a game that is likely the biggest any of the players have played in.
With a larger venue, an odd starting time and more at stake than any other game before it, it remains to be seen how the Lions will respond to the variables of the state semifinals.
"That's one thing you worry about with these guys, is not having been there," Craig said. "Not having to play an afternoon game. Those things are slight differences, but they're different than what you normally do, so you worry about how we'll handle all that.
"Jones has been there, was there last year, and has the upper hand in that respect. Hopefully we'll handle that aspect and turn it into just another football game."
Kickoff for Blanchard vs. Jones is scheduled for 1:30 p.m. Saturday at Putnam City High School stadium in Oklahoma City.