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Fort Lewis football ready to bring the boom against Oklahoma Panhandle State

FLC football hopes to hear cannon sing
Fort Lewis College football head coach John L. Smith is hoping to see a lot of improvement in his team Saturday when the Skyhawks open the home schedule.

Fort Lewis College has waited a long time to fire the cannon after a touchdown on its football field at Ray Dennison Memorial Stadium

After a two-year project, the Skyhawks once again have a cannon on the field, and they hope bring the boom back to Durango in the home opener at noon Saturday against Oklahoma Panhandle State.

“We’re excited, without a doubt. Anytime you open at home, it’s a big deal,” FLC head coach John L. Smith said Friday in a phone interview with The Durango Herald. “Hopefully they get to fire that cannon, and hopefully wear that thing out.”

Smith is ready for the season’s first home game after enduring a 14-hour bus ride to Bozeman, Montana, for last week’s season opener against NCAA Division I Football Championship Subdivision No. 9 Montana State.

The Division II Skyhawks competed well against a much more talented foe for one half. The score was 7-0 in favor of Montana State until the final minute of the first half, and FLC trailed only 14-0 at halftime before going on to lose 45-14.

“We wore down a little in the second half and made mistakes, but overall I was quite pleased with the things we did do,” Smith said. “We came out of the game healthy and optimistic. A lot of guys gained confidence from the game, and for others it was an eye-opener.”

Smith, a head coach with a Division I pedigree after stops at schools the likes of Arkansas, Louisville and Michigan State, is in his third season leading the Skyhawks, and the improvement has been slow but steady. He believes a team makes its biggest improvements from Week 1 to Week 2 and 3, and he is hoping to see a lot of it this week.

Starting quarterback Jordan Doyle, a senior, passed for only 50 yards and rushed for another 58 to go with one passing touchdown to Juquelle Thompson last week. Junior transfer quarterback AJ Thigpen came on and threw a touchdown to Durango native Jordan Gillen late in the fourth quarter, and Smith said both quarterbacks should see the field this Saturday.

“We will definitely use two and possibly even three quarterbacks at times,” Smith said.

PJ Hall received some national attention after last week’s game, but not for a reason he would want. He was laid out while trying to catch a short pass by Montana State’s Mac Bignell. ESPN billed the hit as an early candidate for hit of the year, comparing it to the hit former South Carolina linebacker Jadeveon Clowney laid on a Michigan player in the 2013 Outback Bowl. But Hall bounced right back up and returned to the game a few plays later, going on to lead the Skyhawks with 75 yards on 20 carries.

Smith knows the team’s running game will determine its success moving forward.

“You have to run it to win. Eventually there will be some place in the game we have to run it to win,” he said. “We got a good push from our line at times last week, and our running backs learned quite a bit.”

But Smith also likes his weapons at the receiver position and believes his team should have a few good personnel matchups that can lead to big plays this week. Still, he called Oklahoma Panhandle State a skilled team with a lot of speed at wide receiver and defensive back.

The Aggies fell 51-32 last week to No. 12 Angelo State.

Senior running back Chris McClendon averaged 8.1 yards per carry with two touchdowns in last week’s game. Rod Moore also rushed for 86 yards.

“They are similar to us in a lot of regards. They have a nice, big running back who does a great job,” Smith said. “He’s a thick kid that is hard to tackle. We’re gonna have to get to him and wrap him up.”

Panhandle State head coach Russell Gaskamp hopes to get his backs more carries this week.

“We have to get more touches for McClendon and Moore and shore up on pass protection offensively,” he said in a news release. “Defensively, we have to do a better job of not giving up big plays and have to play sound assignments.”

Panhandle State scores in bunches and frequently finds itself in a shootout. The same was true a season ago, when the Skyhawks rallied with 28 points in the fourth quarter to beat the Aggies 45-38 in Goodwell, Oklahoma.

Smith wants to make the Aggies throw the ball more than they want to this week by getting an early lead and shutting down the opposing running game. Kaimon Ontiveros led FLC with nine tackles last week, while Daniel Walker added six. The defense line, anchored by Sione Folaumoeloa and Dalten Lane. The Skyhawks’ defensive line averages 6-foot-1, 257 pounds.

“Panhandle is as skilled, if not more skilled, as we are. We expect them to come in and try to take away our running game, and we want to do the same to them,” Smith said. “Our advantage is up front on both sides. If we take away their run and make them throw it, we will be in a good situation. I like our matchup on the front, it favors us.”

jlivingston@durangoherald.com

If you go

Who: Oklahoma Panhandle State at Fort Lewis College

What: College football

When: Noon today

Where: Ray Dennison Memorial Field, Fort Lewis

Listen Live: KIUP 930 AM/97.3 FM

Twitter: @jlivi2

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