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Lack of passing game catches up with Tigers in title game loss

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  • George Becnel
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  • December 09, 2017 - 6:37pm

With the final score on the scoreboard, Hahnville's Nick Saltaformaggio (left) and Zachary's David Brewerton shake hands after the Classs 5A state championship Saturday night.

NEW ORLEANS - Someone finally forced Hahnville to throw the football and someone kept Anthony “Pooka” Williams from breaking any highlight reel-type runs. That someone was Zachary and the Broncos are state champs for the second time in three years.

Zachary spotted Hahnville an early 7-0 lead but built a 27-7 halftime advantage on its way to a 34-14 victory to capture the Class 5A state title Saturday night at the Superdome.

“I’m very proud of our guys. We had a great year and we lost to a worthy champion,” Hahnville coach Nick Saltaformaggio said.

Williams, who rushed for more than 1,700 yards in the regular season and just shy of 1,400 in five postseason games, amassed 210 yards rushing. His yardage came not in length-of-the-field sprints like through much of the season but on a workmanlike 36 carries. His longest run of the night was 26 yards.

“What (the Broncos defense) did that nobody else did – and it’s why they are the state champions – is because their second-level defenders could run. They could run really, really well. What we have been able to do all year long is block that second level and continue our movement upfield with our offensive front but their back-side guys were causing us tremendous heartache,” Saltaformaggio said.

“Our defense has played tremendous all season long,” said Zachary coach David Brewerton. “We are not built on being a big, overpowering defense. We are built on speed and we run with great angles. That’s what’s important when you play a back like (Williams); you better run your angles correctly and you better be upset when you get to the ball. I thought we did a great job of that.”

The Broncos, said Brewerton, took special notice of Williams’ blazing speed.

“He’s a special athlete. I was worried if he got past our front eight, we couldn’t tackle him. When you talk 4.31 electric time at LSU, that is rolling. We don’t have anybody on our defense that can run like that. But when you run at the correct angles, you can help out with that speed factor and that’s what they did,” the Zachary coach said.

A key to Hahnville’s run to the state championship game was an ability to play with a lead or usually never more than behind by two touchdowns. Once the Tigers, who concluded their season 12-3, fell behind by three scores against Zachary, they were forced to throw the football.

“We are just not made to make up 21 points,” said Saltaformaggio. “We can make up two touchdowns because usually we will break a long run and our defense will get a turnover to shorten the field. When we got down by three scores, it was tough.”

For a team that sometimes failed to attempt a pass in a regular-season game and rarely more than a handful of times in a game, Hahnville was forced to put the ball in the air 14 times against Zachary, which ended the year 13-2.

Hahnville quarterback Jha’Quan Jackson was 4 of 14 passing for 92 yards and two interceptions. Of the total, 62 came on a pass play when Michael Gray broke free after hauling in a screen pass.

“People look at your passing game and say it’s the quarterback. Well, a couple of times we had terrible protection breakdowns. A couple of times we couldn’t get anybody open. A couple of times we overthrew a guy that was open. At the end of the night it all kind of adds up,” said Saltaformaggio.

Jackson played the entire game despite suffering an injury in the early portion of the contest.

“Jha’Quan is a true champion. He got hurt. I don’t know the extent of it. At first, we thought he may have had a MCL tear. He put a brace on it and went at it. We wouldn’t be here without him. As great as Anthony’s been and as good as our offensive line has been, we would not be here without Jha’Quan Jackson. The best part about him is he’s a junior. That was a very valiant effort on his part,” Saltaformaggio said.

The Tigers’ limited ability to throw the football was illustrated early in the second half.

Trailing 27-7, Hahnville attempted a fake punt on fourth-and-three at the Zachary 38 on the opening possession of the second half but Tigers punter Dalton Melancon was stopped short and HHS gave up the ball on downs.

“You have to have faith in your kids,” Saltaformaggio said of attempting the fake punt. “For me not to have confidence in them; that wouldn’t say much about me as a head coach. These kids have answered the bell every time I’ve asked them to.

“The fake punt didn’t go our way. We actually went the wrong way. It’s really simple; just count numbers. We ran to the six-man side instead of the five-man side.”

When Zachary faced fourth-and-1 from the Hahnville 29 on the ensuing drive, Logan Robert and Lyncoy Reynaud dropped Broncos running back Darweshi Sanders behind the line of scrimmage.

On first down, Jackson missed a wide-open Jamel Byrd. Three plays later, Jackson was intercepted by Tyler Judson.

“We got the stop and then we missed the ball over the top. I think had we completed that, even being down 27-7 at that point, we were playing well enough to get back in the game,” Saltaformaggio said.

Hahnville’s only big play of the night – Gray’s 62-yard reception down to the Zachary 18, set up a 1-yard run by Jackson to make the score 27-14 with 4:59 left in the game.

Melancon, kicking off for the Tigers, attempted an onside kick in which the ball never went into the air and rolled 10 yards. Melancon got to the ball first and after a scramble, Daryle Evans recovered for Hahnville at the HHS 46.

On the very next play, Jackson was picked off by Zachary’s Jon Burrell.

In the closing minutes of the game, Hahnville faced fourth-and-20 from its own 37. Jackson was stripped of the ball and Chris Hart scooped it up and raced in for a touchdown with 1:24 left in the game to account for the final margin.

After falling behind by 20 points at halftime, Hahnville managed to stay in the game for awhile in the second half behind the effort of the Tigers’ defense.

“We battled back. I thought we played well the second half. I thought our defense played exceptionally well in the second half,” said Saltaformaggio.

“I was real proud of our defense the second half. We stepped up real big,” said Reynaud.

“We gave the most effort I’ve ever seen but it didn’t work out,” Hahnville defender Hunter Leblanc said.

Williams produced the game’s first points at the 3:48 mark of the first quarter on a 26-yard run two plays after a Reynaud recovery of a Burrell fumble at the Zachary 29.

Zachary countered with a 71-yard drive on the ensuing possession. A 4-yard run by Sanders on the first play of the second quarter capped the drive. Leblanc blocked the extra point, allowing Hahnville to cling to a 7-6 lead.

Sanders rushed for 117 yards and two touchdowns while playing with an apparent chip on his shoulder.

“I was hyped about Pooka. I took it personally. It was all about Pooka. They must of forgot there was another running back,” said Sanders.

After a tackle-breaking 31-yard run right up the middle by Sanders made it 20-7 with 5:06 left in the second quarter, the Tigers turned to Williams in an attempt to get points right before halftime.

Williams appeared to be on the way to one of his patented possessions, getting the call for the first seven plays to advance the ball to the Zachary 43.

With Williams on the bench for a breather, Evans ran twice for a total of 9 yards before a Hahnville penalty.

On Williams’ first play back in the game, he lined up at receiver and got the ball on a reverse but fumbled, with Maverick McClure recovering for Zachary. On the first play from scrimmage, Brown connected with Trea Shropshire for 30 yards and a touchdown with 39 seconds left to give the Broncos a 27-7 halftime lead.

“I’ve always been a coach that when there is a turnover or turnover on downs, we try to hit some big plays. Keilon made a great throw to the Shropshire kid and we put on in at the end and I think that was huge going in at halftime,” said Brewerton.

“When we turned that ball over and they score on the very next play, all the wind kind of went out of the sails. That’s just really good football players trying to make a play and I can’t fault them for that,” Saltaformaggio said.

Brown, a sophomore, finished with 189 yards rushing and was 5 of 13 passing for 55 yard to garner the Most Outstanding Player honors for Zachary.

Williams was name the Most Outstanding Player for Hahnville in his final game as a Tiger.

“He’ll go down as one of the very greatest players in the history of prep history. We were laughing today; looked at his career statistics and he’s rushed for seven miles. That’s a pretty good four years labor,” said Saltaformaggio.

George Becnel | .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

George Becnel is an award-winning journalist and has been a sports writer and editor for more than 30 years.