Normally a 260-yard yard performance from their star running back and a six-point victory would be enough to make most coaches smile.
Not for Van Horn's Jeff Tolbert.
“You know what we're going to do this week in practice?” he shouted, following his team's 9-3 victory against Lathrop Friday at Truman High School. “We're going to run, we're going to run and we're going to run some more. We have to do better than that if we're going to beat the better teams on our schedule. We got lucky, but I'll take it.”
After the coach's intense speech in the post-game huddle, he addressed some of the concerns he had.
“We just didn't execute at times,” Tolbert said. “We outplayed them for about five plays and they out played us on all the rest. We got lucky. They fumbled when they were almost to the end zone and one guy dropped a touchdown pass. We need to shore up the missed assignments.”
Another problematic area for the Falcons was penalties. The team committed 11 of them and three other possible ones were declined by the Mules.
“We had too many mistakes,” senior running back J.J. Rivers said, whose 260 yards on 22 carries led the offense. “All those penalties are mental mistakes. We just need to stay focus and prove we can get better at that.”
Although Rivers had two fumbles in the game, his athleticism and pure skilled shined through as he made the two biggest plays of the game. The Falcons had a second-and-32 on their own 9. Rivers took a left sweep, juked one tackler, shed another and outran the Lathrop defense along the left sideline for a 91-yard touchdown scamper, putting the Falcons ahead 7-0 with 33.2 seconds let in the first half.
“I have faith in J.J. to do the things we need him to do,” said Tolbert. “He's a great athlete and has skills that can't be coached. We need him to be more consistent, though. He did rush for 260 yards, but he also fumbled twice. He knows I am going to be hard on him because you have to try to chase perfection and excellence.
“There was nothing fancy about that play. All the linemen held their blocks, the receivers made blocks down field and J.J made a heck of an effort.”
The second came on defense. With Lathrop threatening to take the lead down 9-3 with a little under 4 minutes remaining in the game as they took the ball to the Falcon 14. Mules running back Isis Ayers dashed around the Falcon defense and looked like he had enough room to punch it in.
Rivers had other ideas, though. He stripped the ball out of Ayers' hands and the ball was scooped up by Sylvester Newman and returned to the Van Horn 18.
“I knew our defense was holding him up, so I knew that was my chance to strip the ball,” Rivers said. “I just took a shot and got the ball.”
Lathrop would get the ball one more time, but a combined sack from Junior Ulberg and Demerick Fruean on a fourth-and-7 with less than two minutes remaining sealed it for Van Horn as the team milked the rest of the clock.
“Four sacks is pretty good, but we need to get more,” said Ulberg, whose 1.5 sacks led the team. “We executed well, but we need to get better mentally. We have to go hard every play.”
For most of the game, the Falcon defense was stout. It held the Mules to 21 yards in the first half before having a slight lapse in the second half, surrendering 92 yards. Van Horn collected a safety early in the third quarter when a trio of tacklers took down Ayers for a 4-yard loss, giving it a 9-0 advantage.
“I didn't think it was a safety at first,” Tolbert said. “The other coaches said it was. It was just one of those fortunate things. Our defense played better than our offense and made plays. We had one punt blocked and another one that was muffed. Those things almost wasted a great defensive performance.”
The Falcons only allowed Lathrop inside the red zone one other time. Late in the third, the Mules took the ball all the way to the Van Horn 9 before the drive stalled, and the team had to settle for a Grant Berg 27-yard field goal with 13.3 seconds remaining.
Even with that said, Tolbert said there is a lot of work to do if his Falcons are going to improve to 2-0 at St. Joseph Bishop LeBlond next Friday.
“Their team is always hard-nosed and tough,” Tolbert said. “We are going to have to be better than we were tonight if we expect to beat them.”