It wasn’t the ideal scenario he would have liked, but head coach Darrius G. Smith got a chance to see his Fort Lewis College football team face a conference opponent Friday night.
He was left with the reality that the Skyhawks still have a long way to go before the fall season begins after a 62-26 loss at New Mexico Highlands University in Las Vegas, New Mexico.
FLC lost both of its spring games, scheduled because of the cancellation of the 2020 fall season because of the COVID-19 pandemic. FLC’s other defeat came 60-0 at Division I foe Dixie State University a month earlier.
FLC was slated to play six days earlier at home against Western Colorado University, but that game was canceled because of COVID-19 issues on the Skyhawks team. Eight players tested positive, and several more were put in quarantine.
The Skyhawks weren’t cleared to play this week until new test results came back Wednesday, and they were still without several players.
“I asked for improvement, and I got improvement. But it’s difficult to play a team with no knowledge of who they are and what they’re about,” Smith said. “Preparing for this game, there was no film. It’s watching YouTube videos on their recruits and things of that nature. Then, to only have one day of practice this week to put a game plan in, I asked a lot of these kids. The scoreboard doesn’t show it, but they gave me a lot.
“I’m not an excuse maker. It wasn’t an ideal week of preparation, but we took advantage of an opportunity given to play and came up short.”
Highlands, playing in its only spring game, didn’t ease up on the Skyhawks in the blowout win. Cowboys quarterback Ramone Atkins torched FLC, as he went 15-of-27 passing for 267 yards and four touchdowns, while he ran for the game’s first two scores as part of 12 carries for 89 yards.
“He was very good. I can’t take anything away from that young man,” Smith said. “He was different. But we had no knowledge of what they did with their system. Our defense walked into the game blind and not as healthy as you would want to be.”
Many players FLC played against Friday night weren’t on the Highlands roster on the team website, including the team’s leading rusher and three leading receivers.
Highlands racked up 647 yards of offense in the game with 290 on the ground and 357 through the air. Gunner Mefferd saw time at quarterback and went 3-for-3 for 54 yards and a touchdown right before halftime that cost the Skyhawks momentum.
FLC trailed 14-0 after one quarter on the two rushing scores by Atkins. Early in the second quarter, FLC quarterback Armon “Bubba” Hickson was intercepted on his first pass attempt of the game after coming on in place of starter Connor Apodaca. He threw the ball into coverage and was picked off by Willie Morris, who returned it easily to the end zone for a touchdown that had Highlands ahead 14-0.
Smith said he was furious with the throw and was going to bench Hickson, but the two talked and Hickson asked the coach to keep his word about giving him an opportunity to play. Smith agreed and was rewarded with two scoring drives from the transfer QB.
Hickson first completed an 11-play, 75-yard drive with a 10-yard shuttle pass score to freshman Evan Walsh, who is listed as a defensive back for the Skyhawks.
On his next drive, Hickson hit Dylan Holt, a transfer receiver from Colorado State, on a 46-yard TD pass.
With 43 seconds to go in the second quarter, FLC got within 28-19 on a 1-yard TD run by Apodaca, who had come back into the game as part of a planned time share between the two competing QBs.
The only other FLC touchdown of the game came in the fourth quarter when Walsh recovered a fumbled punt for a touchdown after Jason Nettles forced the loose ball.
Hickson finished 7-of-13 passing for 108 yards, two touchdowns and the interception. Apodaca was 6-of-14 for 95 yards, and Jaelin Hood, a wide receiver, went 1-of-1 passing for four yards while he rushed twice for 24 yards. FLC was led in rushing by Jeff Hansen, who went for 51 yards on eight carries. Emmanuel Nwosu was bottled up for 37 yards on 18 carries.
FLC was encouraged by Holt’s huge game with five catches for 140 yards and the TD.
“That was big to see Dylan break out,” Smith said. “We also had Jaelin Hood get a little package in there that we liked. It’s part of putting the puzzle pieces together and seeing what meshes. We have a long way to go, but we are a little closer now.”
Smith said both of his QBs have strengths and weaknesses that they will have to address before next season. He expects the defense to improve when it can put more of a plan in place in practice to prepare for an opponent.
“Our Xs and Os are sputtering a bit, but we also have some guys who were trying some things and pressing too hard to try to get things done and doing what they aren’t coached or asked to do,” Smith said. “You can’t play the game that way. When you do, it compromises the integrity of the scheme.”
Smith also knows the team needs more talent to compete.
“Recruiting, recruiting, recruiting. That’s the nature of the beast,” he said. “We gotta get some players in here. We need more Willie’s and Joe’s.”