LONGMEADOW, Mass. -– When Ju’uan Williams was asked to slide into the quarterback role in place of his suspended star cousin two weeks ago, a position he hadn’t played since the fourth grade, he didn’t just serve for Springfield Central. He flat out dazzled, putting up over 200 yards from scrimmage in a blowout of East Longmeadow.
Tonight, amidst a 14-all deadlock with rival Longmeadow, with the ball in field goal range and 15 seconds left in regulation, Williams didn’t just bring in the play from the sidelines, a power-option right out of a two-back shotgun look aimed at simply moving the ball to the right hash mark for roughly a 30-yard field goal attempt.
No, it’s never as simple as just that with these Central kids. Somebody’s always got to make it interesting.
Williams brought the play into the huddle, told his linemen “Leave it all on the field”, then proceeded to cut back the opposite way from that intended hash mark to paydirt, a 15-yard scamper with six seconds left, to give the Golden Eagles (5-1) a dramatic 21-14 comeback win over Longmeadow that folks on Roosevelt Ave. will surely be talking about for a while.
It’s the second year in a row the Eagles have beaten the Lancers (4-2) in the regular season, having won 21-20 last October in equally-dramatic fashion. But it was also a revenge game; the Lancers rolled Central, 35-7, in the rematch at Gillette Stadium last December for the Division 1 West Super Bowl title.
“This game was personal,” said tight end Luis Ortiz. “We came out here, we fought, and we give it to our big men [the offensive line]. Without them, we can’t do anything.”
Williams (16 carries, 68 yards, TD; 8-of-14, 129 yards, 2 TD) was equally deferential to the trench, where linemen like Ishmael Figueroa and Shawn Lee seemed to get more push as time elapsed.
“The hogs were working to get the outside,” he said. “I couldn’t have done it without them, and everyone that was blocking for me.”
But really, this was about a team collectively making a statement with its two biggest stars on the sideline. Quarterback Cody Williams, the cousin of Ju’uan, served the second of a two-game suspension tonight for his involvement in a fight on the field two weeks ago. Two-way lineman Shawn Lockett, a preseason ESPN Boston All-State selection, hobbled off the field in the game’s opening series, re-aggravating the ankle injury that has already kept him out of three games this season.
And the way this game started off made one wonder for a second if this was going to get out of hand. The Lancers opened the game with a 10-minute, 16-play, 72-yard drive, punctuated with a one-yard sneak by quarterback Johnny Falcone on fourth and goal. Central’s ensuing drive ended after three minutes thanks to Frankie Elder’s tip-drill interception, and the Lancers put together another monster drive. This one went 91 yards and nearly six minutes, capped again with a one-yard sneak by Falcone.
The Eagles responded on the ensuing drive with the first of two well-timed touchdown strikes from Ju’uan to receiver Tejano Smith (3 catches, 31 yards, 2 TD). Facing third and goal from the five, Smith crashed to the back left pylon on a smash route and hauled it in easily amid single-coverage.
After some struggles in the third quarter, Central got a good break early in the fourth when Lancers fullback Austin Sierra (13 carries, 90 yards) fumbled the ball at his own 40 yard line, and Kenneth Marshall quickly pounced on it and rolled out of bounds.
A half-dozen plays later, Smith came up with the play of the night, this time rolling to the right back pylon as Ju’uan threw a high knuckler that came off his fingertips looking like it was going to sail over the back line. But Smith came down with it, diving with about a foot of real estate to go and getting a foot in before rolling out of bounds. That tied the game at 14 with 6:31 to go.
After forcing a three-and-out on the next series, Central took the ball at its own 30 with 4:04 to go, and Ju’uan did the rest, leading them on a nine-play, 70-yard drive using a mix of spread and offset power-I looks out of the no-huddle and punching it in with his 15-yard change-of-direction rush.
The Education of Ju’uan: Ju’uan Williams last played quarterback in fourth grade before this current stint, and naturally it wasn’t a totally polished effort tonight, veiling play-fakes thinly and sometimes overthrowing his intended receiver, which ended up costly at least once (Elder had a second tip-drill pick negated on a roughing the passer penalty).
Tonight, Ju’uan was at his best seemingly when he was at his most unpredictable, taking off on scrambles or rolling out to his right and leading a short crossing receiver with some soft touch. He has worn many hats so far in his time with the Eagles, and will probably wear many more, but the one overarching theme with it all is speed.
With Cody Williams under center, the Eagles have a more balanced attack, able to drop back rather than play on the run. But with Ju’uan under center, it’s a unique look, essentially putting 11 on 11 with the added threat of extending the play with his feet.
“We’re spreading the receivers out, and if Ju’uan doesn’t see anyone open, he just runs,” Smith said. “He can run it. He can run it.”
You can darn well bet Ju’uan has been consulting his cousin Cody a lot these past two weeks -– “It’s been amazing, he’s been there every step of the way,”. But with Cody coming off his suspension and resuming his role under center this week comes potentially a new added ripple. All that time with the scout team has taught Brower a few more things about Cody’s ability.
“He was scout safety [these past two weeks], and we found out he can play a little safety,” Brower said of Cody Williams. “He was excited about that. He made the scout defense pretty competitive.”
Underrated? Asked about the play calls on Smith’s two touchdown grabs, Brower chuckled, “25 T.J. Smith.”
It’s easy to overlook Smith, listed comfortably at 5-foot-7 and 150 pounds. But he seems to be acutely aware of the spacing he has to work with, how he’ll exploit it, and seems to have this intuitive nose for making worthwhile athletic plays.
Take his second touchdown, for instance, a ball that appeared to be overthrown at first glance. Whereas some may have slowed up when seeing the ball, Smith accelerated to get under it, then laid out with a few short steps to go. Smith told reporters of the catch, “It just came to me, really,” saying he just wanted to get underneath the ball and let his feet come along for the ride.
“Ju’uan threw a knuckleball, and I had to adjust to it,” Smith said. “It came out of the dark, but it was a good throw.”
“He’s a great athlete, man,” Brower said. “He studies a lot of film, and he studies a lot of different things. He just loves football, loves football, and he’s a great athlete. The kid high-jumps 5-11 and he’s about 5-4. He’s just a little freak.
“So, you can’t really teach that stuff. He kinda just does it in practice, you know, it just kind of comes natural to him. He’s just a good athlete.”
Good athlete, but underrated? Smith seems to carry a chip on his shoulder. When asked about how he got open on his two touchdown catches, he veered off onto one of his favorite topics.
“They went man, and honestly, I think I’m one of the best in Western Mass.,” he smiled, adding with a laugh, “But I guess I’m underrated.”