LENA-WINSLOW — Trying to evoke memories of its storied past, Leo was unable sustain a dominant running game that put the team on the threshold of playing for a state title.
The Lions fell behind early and had to abandon its running game as Lena-Winslow scored on six of its first seven possessions and subdued a late Leo rally for a 45-22 Class 1A state semifinal victory.
“We couldn’t run and we couldn’t stop the run,” Leo coach Mike Holmes said.
Leo (10-3) reached into its revered past, the two national titles the program won in 1944 and 1963 in reaching the state semifinals for just the second time in program history. The Lions won a state playoff game for the first time since 1992, and also defeated two separate No. 1 seeded teams in qualifying for the semifinals.
Leo had thrashed its three previous state playoff opponents by averaging 279 yards on the ground while only attempting 18 passes in its first three playoff games. By contrast, the Lions’ Latrell Giles threw 27 passes Saturday, completing seven.
Nicknamed “Le-Win,” the Panthers (10-3) neutralized the Lions’ size advantage with quickness and a series of blitz packages. Leo running back Theo Hopkins was held to negative-6 yards on eight attempts. Leo managed just 37 yards rushing.
The Lions had no answer for Panthers’ senior running back Tyler Oakley. He gashed Leo by rushing for 304 yards on 21 carries and three touchdowns. Oakley scored on touchdown runs of 77 and 76 yards as Lena-Winslow built a commanding 38-0 advantage late in the third quarter. Oakley added a nine-yard touchdown run.
The two long touchdown runs developed off counter plays. “They run a lot of misdirection, and we game-planned against it, but wew couldn’t stop them,” Holmes said. “Once we were able to score, we couldn’t stop them from scoring.”
Leo star two-way skill player Riley McClendon-Gray almost single-handedly kept the Lions in the game. He caught three touchdowns passes from junior quarterback Giles covering 64, six and 58 yards. McGlendon-Gray finished with five catches for 198 yards.
Leo scored its three touchdowns in the final 10:17. Leo had fallen too far behind to ever truly get back into the game.
“Once we got behind and had to start throwing all the time, they just dropped seven back there, and there wasn’t a lot we could do,” Holmes said. “They knew what we were going to do.”
Throwing against the vicious and wintry wind proved difficult. Giles (209 passing yards) missed his first 15 attempts and threw two interceptions. “The weather, especially the cold, made it very difficult out there,” Giles said. “We couldn’t throw like we normally do.”
McClendon-Gray said it was important to end the game on the right note.
“We never stopped playing, and we never quit,” he said. “I just wanted to do what I could to help us.”