The Game? How about The Letdown In The Muck?
Saturday's Wilde Lake-Oakland Mills football "contest" provided more proof that pre-game hype, like a slick, attractive movie ad, can be an invitation to a four-star yawner.
Not that the Wildecats, the 18-0 winners and, for the first time, undefeated county champions, were disappointing.
On the contrary, Wilde Lake staged the kind of tough, resourceful performance that marks state champions. A rushing touchdown set up by a long punt return. A passing touchdown set up by a spectacular catch. A blocked punt for a safety. A field goal.
FOR THE RECORD - In a story last Wednesday on Wilde Lake's football team, the Wildecats were incorrectly credited with setting a county record for fewest points allowed in a season. Howard High School holds the record, 22 points allowed, set in 1973.
The Howard County Sun regrets the error.
Oakland Mills (9-1) was the day's big loser, as the Scorpions saw their dreams of a perfect season and a county title smothered by Wilde Lake's relentless defense.
But sharing in the Scorpions' loss were the several thousand fans who came to Oakland Mills on a cold, windy, rainy day to see a game billed as a battle between the league's top offensive weapons -- running backs Korey Singleton (Oakland Mills) and Raphael Wall (Wilde Lake).
What they got was a game altered drastically by two factors. First, the rain-drenched field negated team speed on both sides, most notably the explosive Wall (1,504 yards, 24 TDs). The elements also made passing an unattractive option for both teams. And, of course, this was the first foul-weather Saturday of the season.
Second, injuries to the two most important parts of the Oakland Mills offense all but doomed the Scorpions from the opening kickoff.
A knee injury suffered a week earlier by Singleton (1,817 yards, 24 TDs) forced Oakland Mills coach Ken Hovet to make his most unpleasant decision of the year. He allowed Singleton, who sported a huge knee brace and was heavily taped, to play defense. But the 205-pound workhorse fullback never carried the ball, and eventually proved too limited even to finish what, for him, had been an average game.
On top of that, tailback/flanker Eric Graham (639 yards, five TDs) didn't play. He reported to a midweek practice with a doctor's note saying an examination of a mysterious thigh ailment had revealed calcium deposits.
Thus, the disappointing tone of the game was set when the Scorpions took the field for the opening possession, lacking nearly 2,500 yards of offense.
"Actually, it was a letdown for us, too, instead of a mental lift," said Wilde Lake defensive coach Ed Ashwell. "The kids wanted to play against Korey. They wanted to stop him."
Under normal circumstances, the Scorpions would have been thankful for the crummy field conditions. A soaked surface would figure to hurt Wilde Lake more, in that it would take away the wonderful cutting ability of Wall, who thrives so much on changing direction.
Now the weather was even more of an ally to the Scorpions.
"For us to win the game, we felt we had to shut them out 3-0 or 7-0," said Hovet, who knew by Friday Singleton would likely be unavailable on offense. The pre-game warm-up confirmed his fear. Singleton couldn't cut properly on the knee.
The Oakland Mills defense played admirably, holding the Wildecats to 103 yards and Wall to a season-low 42 on 14 carries. And the mud did help Oakland Mills on one first-quarter play, when Wall burst through the line, veered to the right, cut back to the open middle, then fell. What looked like a certain 62-yard TD run became a 7-yard gain.
Even while Wall was having a sub-par day, Wilde Lake played like a team without a discernible weakness. The Wildecats look very prepared to go after their first state title since 1985, starting Saturday at 1 p.m., when they are host to Chesapeake-Baltimore County in a Class 2A quarterfinal.
Starting with their defense: It's hard to believe any Wilde Lake defense could be underrated, yet with a dymano like Wall grabbing headlines every week, that's happened with this team. Saturday set some of the record straight.
Wilde Lake recorded its sixth shutout of the season and wound up the regular season giving up 29 points -- a county record. They also became the first county team to go thorough a regular season without surrendering a rushing touchdown.
The Wildecats held the Scorpions to three first downs, 17 net yards and never allowed them into Wilde Lake territory. They held halfback replacement Derrick Brooks to 11 yards on 22 carries. They sacked quarterback Joe Coughlan four times for 32 yards, intercepting him once.
Their defensive line lived in the Oakland Mills backfield. Noseguard Tony Ferace, whom Hovet had considered a weak link in the Wildecats chain, led Wilde Lake with eight solo tackles, five assists and a sack. Tackle Darius Waters had four solos and six assists. Linebacker Denny Trager had two sacks. Safety Ricky Rowe had his fifth interception.
The rest of the game belonged to Wilde Lake's special teams and quarterback Phil White. Joe Guyton's 35-yard punt return in the first quarter set up Wall's 25th touchdown from a yard out to give Wilde Lake a 6-0 lead.
The Wildecats then put on a decisive show in the first half's final minute. Ben Casella blocked an Oakland Mills punt that rolled out of the Scorpions end zone for a safety. Then, after Damon Hamlin (7 carries for 35 yards) returned the ensuing kickoff 22 yards to the Scorpions 45, White took over with 54 seconds left.
On first down, White hit his favorite target, wideout Oba McMillan, over the middle for a spectacular 19-yard completion. McMillan caught the ball on his fingertips while fully extended parallel to the ground. On the next play, Adam Tyer slipped between two Oakland Mills defenders over the middle. White found him for a 26-yard touchdown to give Wilde Lake a 15-0 halftime lead.
"That essentially ended the game. We weren't going to score three times," Hovet said.
White finished the scoring with a 21-yard field goal with 4:55 left in the game.