Friday Night Lights 2014: Week 1

Friday Night Lights is back!

The 2014 IHSAA football season kicked off tonight. As is my tradition, I plan to enjoy the magic of Friday night football at the little high school stadiums across Johnson County with my dad this fall. We may skip a week or two, which will be unfortunate, but we will always try to make an effort. I also plan to bore you with post-game reports. Does anyone read them? I am not sure, but they do generate hits.

Before getting to tonight’s game, I wanted to mention the big changes that reshaped the look of 4A high school football in Eastern Iowa. The last holdouts of the old conference system — the Mississippi Valley Conference (MVC) and Mississippi Athletic Conference (MAC) — have been dissolved and replaced by four districts. (MVC football is dead. Long live MVC football!) The writing was on the wall as early as 2012, when 4A schools in the west and central areas of the state switched to districts, and the death knell was rung in December or January when Cedar Rapids Xavier, Davenport Assumption, and Dubuque Wahlart dropped their football programs down to 3A. All three had technically been Class 3A schools by enrollment for a while, but were grandfathered into the MVC and MAC for reasons I cannot remember.

Though it is sad the MVC and MAC are no more, I think the move to district football makes sense. And though many of the districts feature familiar foes, the new system creates new and interesting matchups. City High plays in District 6 with Burlington, Cedar Rapids Washington, Muscatine, Ottumwa, and Cedar Rapids Prairie. (Ottumwa had previously been a member of a central state district, but the IHSAA moved it east to keep the team numbers even.) IC West is in the five-team District 7 with Davenport Central, Davenport North, Dubuque Hempstead, and Pleasant Valley. Also, district play gives Eastern Iowa teams a chance to play like competition from Central Iowa, or even teams from different divisions. Cedar Rapids Xavier and West Des Moines Dowling played tonight (Dowling won, 24–2), IC West will play at West Des Moines Valley next week (the Battle of the Rich Kids), and Ames plays at City High on the eve of the Iowa State–Iowa game in two weeks. With a traveling trophy, that game looks to become the high school equivalent of the Cy-Hawk football series. Times, they are a changin’, and it ain’t a bad thing.

Anyway, on to football!

Tonight my dad and I walked to Bates Field for the Cedar Falls–City High game. The Tigers and Little Hawks open the season against each other in Iowa City for the second year in a row, and once again Cedar Falls looked disciplined and prepared while City High was unorganized and hurt itself.

There really is not much to say about this game — which is a shame because I took notes on each drive. Cedar Falls won, 14–0, but the Tigers did not score on offense. Cedar Falls returned a blocked punt for a touchdown in the first quarter, and returned a punt in the third quarter.

It was hard to tell whether or not this was a defensive battle or if the offenses could do nothing. Honestly, I think it was a little bit of both. Both defenses were stout, but neither offense could find a rhythm and sustain a drive. (I doubt the Little Hawks gained 150 yards on offense.)

City High could not control the line of scrimmage at all; the Little Hawks were not able to establish their traditional power running game. They had luck with QB keepers in the first half, but other than that they could do very little on the ground. City High apparently has a lot of speed, but it was bottled up. Three fumbles in the first half also did not help the Little Hawks, including one on the Cedar Falls 14-yard line. On the Tigers’ ensuing drive, it looked like City High tackled the running back in the end zone. One referee signaled a safety and the crowd went wild, but the line judges marked the ball at the 1/2-yard line. The two points that had prematurely gone up on the scoreboard came off and the Tigers punted. A facemask penalty on the punt return allowed City High to start their next drive on the Cedar Falls 19 with 1:06 left in the half. After gaining a first down, and with no time outs left, the Little Hawks missed a field goal from the 10-yard line.

The second half was full of penalties and three-and-outs. City High did drive the ball inside the red zone in the fourth quarter, but a pass on 4th-and-15 slipped through the wide receiver’s hands at the goal line. Ugh!

Speaking of passing, the Little Hawks played four-wide most of the night, with three receiver set to one side. Crazy, huh? City High passed, and tried to pass, a lot, often rolling the QB to the right. It was…different. But, as I said, the Little Hawks were unable to establish the power game inside so they went to the air outside. They had a couple nice screen plays, including one that could have gone the distance, but it was not to be tonight. The Little Hawks need to get things figured out on offense because they open the season with three tough tests: tonight against #6 Cedar Falls, next week at #4 Bettendorf, and the home game against #7 Ames. (I am using the Gazette/KCRG rankings.) Yeah. It is going to be a tough row to hoe before district play begins.

But it was a great night for a football game. It was damp but cool. There was a big crowd — fans filled most of the seats on both sides of the stadium — and there was a lot of energy and excitement in the air. There was a threat of rain, but it stayed away except for some sprinkles in the third quarter. The lights were in full effect by eight o’clock and the cicadas were buzzing like crazing, creating a wall of sound in the trees along First Avenue.

Also tonight, the biggest high school football news came from Solon: the Spartans beat the Regina Regals, 29–28, in an overtime thriller. The loss snaps the Regals’ 56-game winning streak, the longest in state history. (They just missed breaking the state’s longest unbeaten streak.) I have never been a big Regals fan, even when my cousins played for Regina, but I want to tip my hat and acknowledge their accomplishment. I’ll just leave it at that.

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