It's just the second week of the Indiana high school football season, but Lincoln already faces what could be its most important regular season game.
The Alices have eyes on winning the Big Eight Conference championship in the league's final season, and that path starts Friday when Lincoln (1-0) hosts defending champion Boonville (1-0) at Inman Field for a 7:30 p.m. kickoff.
“If you want to win the conference outright, you have to win them all, especially with Mount Carmel no longer in the mix. They were a team that tended to beat some of the top teams. If you want to win the Big Eight, you have to run the table,” Lincoln coach Levi Salters said. “Boonville is the champ until someone knocks them off, and Darin Ward is a really good coach. We know he'll come up with a good game plan against us, and we're going to have to play well. It's all about execution. That's our focus. We have to play assignment football with everyone doing their job.”
The Alices certainly had everyone doing their job on the defensive end last Friday when they didn't allow Evansville Bosse's offense to score in a 28-10 season-opening victory.
Junior linebacker and nickel corner E Smith garnered the most attention with a pair of interceptions, both of which he returned for scores, to go with six tackles, but he was far from the only key player on the Lincoln defense. Junior Julius Hardiman, a move-in from Washington, made an immediate impact at defensive end with 14 total tackles, six for a loss, six quarterback hurries and a recovered fumble. Senior linebacker Logan McCrary added 11 solo tackles, and senior defensive end Rae Haislip had four tackles and a sack. Junior defensive tackle Parker Howder and senior safety Favian Hernandez also had interceptions.
“Obviously Rae and Julius had big games, but Parker Howder and (junior) Julio Ramirez gave them trouble up front too, and Jed Barnett, for only being a sophomore, hardly had a bad snap. It's a huge benefit when we can get after it with our front four,” Salters said. “Logan and (junior) Brayten Pottter were all over the place, and E is just a really good player. He knows game situations, he knows their personnel, and he takes advantage of it.”
The Pioneers should test the defense Friday. While star running back Luke Conner (1,921 rushing yards, 28 touchdowns) is one of 16 seniors gone from last year's 11-1 squad, Boonville still has plenty of threats. Senior quarterback Jackson Phillips returns after throwing for 1,049 yards and rushing for 659 yards and 17 scores a year ago, and junior Devin Mockobee is a capable replacement for Conner. All-State senior tackle Blake Goines leads the offensive line.
“We absolutely want to see more of the same (from the defense),” Salters said. “Boonville probably has a little more size than us, and Goines may be the best lineman we face, but we have some guys who can hold their own, and I think we'll be more athletic. We have to contain Phillips in the pocket, because he's a good runner. We have to know where Mockobee is, because he's a home run threat, running or receiving.”
The other side of the ball is a bigger question. Haislip led the offense last week with 87 yards on 13 carries, wrapping up the victory with a late 33-yard scoring romp. But that run was Lincoln's only first down in the second half. Sophomore quarterback Coleton Pfoff was under duress the entire game, getting sacked four times, and all seven of his second-half pass attempts were incomplete. The Alices finished with just 97 total yards and six first downs, but were hampered in the second half by Haislip cramping up. The senior had just three carries after intermission, as Salters opted to keep him fresh for the defense.
Senior linebacker Reed Overton topped the Pioneers with 140 tackles a year ago, and Mockabee and Phillips are playmakers in the secondary.
“We had some spots on the offensive line where we just weren't very good,” Salters said. “We have to improve up there, and when the line's playing like that, it doesn't give a young quarterback any confidence to set his feet and make a throw. We have to get Rae's conditioning up. We want him at about 20 carries, and if he gets that last week, he's well over 100 yards.
“I'd like to see more consistency up front. There was a lot of miscommunication. Scheme wise, there's not much to change. We just need to communicate better and play as a unit. That's the key.”
With Lincoln and Boonville heading to different conferences next season, this is their last matchup for the foreseeable future. The Pioneers are trying to win consecutive games against the Alices for the first time in 10 years. It's the 17th consecutive year Lincoln's opened the conference slate with Boonville, but the Pioneers have had a 1-0 league start in all but two of those seasons with wins over Washington. The streak continued last week with a 42-6 shellacking of the Hatchets.
Big Eight standings
Last Friday's results
Lincoln 28, Evansville Bosse 10
Boonville 42, Washington 6
Evansville Memorial 35, Jasper 20
Evansville North 49, Princeton 7
Heritage Hills 36, Mount Vernon 0
Boonville at Lincoln
North Posey at Mount Vernon
Princeton at Terre Haute North
Southridge at Jasper
Washington at Evansville Bosse