STEUBENVILLE - There still are plenty of questions surrounding the 2014 Big Red football team but in Thursday's opener, Reno Saccoccia's gridders had a bundle of right answers.
Mandela Lawrence-Burke threw for three touchdowns and ran for another as Big Red knocked off Cleveland John F. Kennedy 49-12 in front of the usual large crowd at Harding Stadium.
Big Red scored the final 28 points of the game to win its 13th consecutive opener and give Saccoccia a 29-3 record in seasonal debuts. Steubenville now holds a 14-0 lead in its all-time series with the Fighting Eagles.
SWARM — Steubenville Big Red’s defense swarms around a Cleveland JFK runing back during the first half of Thursday’s opener at Harding Stadium. Big Red won, 49-12.
-- Mike Mathison
"Our kids played as well as we expected them to tonight," Saccoccia stated. "JFK had a couple of real good players and their kids are tough. I just think our timing and our pre-snap alignment were better.
"We played a lot of kids tonight. I think the key to the game was the number of kids we played compared to the number they played."
Big Red needed just a shade more than two minutes to score its first touchdown of the new campaign. On the initial play from scrimmage, Lawrence-Burke lofted a pass that senior wide receiver Ma'Lik Richmond went airborne to grab between two JFK defenders. The gain of 44 yards put Big Red deep in JFK territory.
Two snaps later, Lawrence-Burke found Richmond again for 18 yards. The six-play, 70 yard drive was capped when Lawrence-Burke scored from eight yards away. Tevon Gary added the extra point.
After forcing the Fighting Eagles to turn the ball over on downs, Big Red went to work again, this time from its own 35. Two carries by Johnnie Blue produced 19 stripes. After a JFK encroachment penalty, Lawrence-Burke found senior tight end Branden Jones wide open in the right flat. The pass and run covered 41 stripes. Gary's kick made it 14-0 and it appeared the rout was on.
JFK, which competes in Ohio's Division II, wasn't ready, however, to call it a day.
The Fighting Eagles of first-year coach Christopher Hubbard took the ensuing kickoff and marched 75 yards to paydirt. The score came on a 20-yard pass from quarterback Ronald Salters to wide receiver Denzel Cummings, who out-jumped a Big Red defender in the corner of the end zone. The conversion run failed.
Saccoccia's crew made it 21-6 via a six-play, 63- yard march. Blue did the honors from three stripes out. Blue's nifty 26-yard twisting run down the sideline highlighted the drive. Gary again split the uprights.
John F. Kennedy responded again, getting an eight-yard scoring toss from Salters to Derron Hookfin on its next touch. This time, a conversion pass fell incomplete.
The turning point of the first half came on JFK's next possession, which began at the Eagles 35. On first down, Salters was thrown for an eight-yard loss by Richmond. Sophomore Jalen McGhee delivered another sack, which also cost the Eagles eight stripes. On third down, Big Red's defense stuffed a JFK run at the line of scrimmage.
Big Red took over at its own 36 with just 44 ticks left in the second quarter. Lawrence-Burke hit senior Donte Brown for eight yards. The junior quarterback then connected with fellow junior Niko Petrides for 38. On the next snap, Lawrence-Burke tossed a six-yard scoring strike to Petrides. Gary's kick put Steubenville up 28-12 at the intermission.
"What I think hurt us the most was maybe playing too many kids during the first two series and not letting the kids settle into the game plan," Saccoccia stated. "They were no sooner in the game and I was taking them out. I felt if we got patient, that would help us at the end of the half and the start of the third quarter, which I think are the most important possessions of the game. After we got patient, everything turned out OK."
The third quarter began with B. Jones sacking Salters in the JFK end zone of a safety. Following the free kick, Lawrence-Burke fired a 35-yard scoring strike to M. Richmond. Gary's kick put the hosts up 37-12.
Later in the third frame, Big Red traveled 76 yards (57 came on the ground) for another touchdown. Junior quarterback Dimitri Collaros and junior tight end Paul Runkle hooked up for a 19-yard score.
JFK was unable to mount any real offensive threats in the second half. One drive ended thanks to an interception by sophomore Shay Wallace and another featured a sack by sophomore Charles Reeves.
Freshman DaJuan Jones scored Big Red's final touchdown on a 40-yard sprint.
"We tried to do everything that we practiced - a little bit of no huddle, three wides, two tights, slant defense and stack defense," Saccoccia noted. "Our plan was to run everything a couple of times to get it on film and have something to show our kids. We wanted to do those things against a little bit of speed. By doing that, we thought it would help us in the long run.
"These kids have had so much pressure on them. I felt they all deserved to play tonight and that's what I did. I think I might have overdone it. We got 82 kids into the game. With five minutes left in the second quarter, we had 42 kids in the game. When you do that, you're not going to be all on cylinders. I'm glad it's over and I'm glad they got to play."
Big Red finished with 498 yards of total offense (260 on the ground and 238 passing). Lawrence-Burke was 10 of 16 for 219. Richmond had four catches for 105 and a score. Blue collected 61 rushing stripes while Brown added 51.
JFK could muster just 45 yards on the ground but Salters did complete16 of 23 passes for 153 and two scores. Cummings had six catches for 111.
Big Red will host Cincinnati Glen Este on Sept.5.
Big Red 49, JFK 12
JFK 0 12 0 0 - 12
Big Red 14 14 15 6 - 49
S: Lawrence-Burke 5 run (Gary kick)
S: B. Jones 41 pass from Lawrence-Burke (Gary kick)
JFK: Cummings 20 pass from Salters (run failed)
S: Blue 3 run (Gary kick)\
JFK: Hookfin 8 pass from Salters (pass failed)
S: Petrides 6 pass from Lawrence-Burke (Gary kick)
S: Safety, Salters tackled in end zone by Jones
S: Richmond 35 pass from Lawrence-Burke (Gary kick)
S: Runkle 19 pass from Collaros (kick blocked)
S: D. Jones 40 run (run failed)
RUSHING: Big Red 30-260-3 (Brown 6-51; Blue 5-61-1; D. Jones 3-49-1; Lawrence-Burke 1-5-1; Williams 2-30; McGhee 3-31; Ferguson 1-5; Sherrell 2-9; Gamble 5-26 Collaros 2-(-7)); JFK 27-45 (Salters 13-23; Tomlinson 5-7; Hookfin 4-14; Johnson 1-4; Grimes 2-9; Henderson 2-(-12))..
PASSING: Big Red 10-16-238-4-1 (Lawrence-Burke 9-14-219-3-1; Collaros 1-2-19-1); JFK 16-23-153-2-1 (all by Salters).
RECEIVING: Big Red (Herrington 1-9; Richmond 4-105-1; B. Jones 1-41-1; Runkle 1-19-1; Brown 1-20; Petrides 2-44-1); JFK (Cummings 6-111-1; Moore 1-13; Grimes 5-20; Day 3-11; Hookfin 1-8-1).
FIRST DOWNS: Big Red 19; JFK 13.
PENALTIES-YARDS: Big Red 7-60; JFK 8-42.
PUNTS: Big Red 1-32; JFK 4-33.
FUMBLES-LOST: Big Red 2-1; JFK 2-0.