Friday night was a case study in an opportunistic defense.
Newport brushed past a shaky start and took advantage of Mercer Island miscues in a hard-fought 28-21 win over the Islanders that came down to the final drive.
Knights senior linemen Lee Stoops and Matt Murray combined to sack standout Islanders quarterback Jeff Lindquist with less than five seconds to play to seal the victory for Newport.
The Knights (2-0) had to overcome a quick start by Mercer Island, as junior Nicky Sinclair returned the opening kickoff 92 yards for a touchdown that sent the Islanders stands into a frenzy.
“That was a real deflator right off the bat,” said Newport coach Mike Miller. “That’s never how you want to start a game.”
Newport was forced to punt on their first possession but soon took advantage of Mercer Island’s mistake of the night. With the Islanders driving, senior running back Ben Emanuels coughed up the ball deep in Knights territory. Newport responded with a nine-play drive that stalled at midfield but the momentum truly turned when the Knights punted – a punt that was fumbled on a fair catch by the Islanders return man. Newport senior running back James Dupar scored untouched on a 17-yard run off the right end.
“That was really big for us,” Dupar said. “Our defense really came through. That’s what made it all happen.”
The Islanders (1-1) found pay dirt early in the second quarter and retook the lead as Lindquist barreled into the end zone on a 4-yard quarterback draw. The big bruising junior proved difficult to take down all night, often times breaking several Newport tackles in the backfield and barely escaping from sacks.
“What really hurt us was open-field tackling on him,” Miller said. “If we hit him low, he’d shove us to the ground; if we hit him high, he’d run us over. He was tough to handle.”
The rest of the night featured Newport’s defense bending, but not breaking, against the Islanders offense. Twice Mercer Island was poised to score before the half before Newport’s defense held stout. With just under two minutes left, the Islanders drove down to the Knights 2-yard line before Lee Stoops sacked Lindquist on fourth down for a 13-yard loss.
Mercer Island got the ball back again right before halftime, but the Knights held yet again as Dupar intercepted Lindquist’s pass from the 14-yard line as time expired.
“We came in the locker room after the first half and we knew we had adjustments to make on both sides of the ball,” said senior lineman Matt Murray. “We came together and said ‘we know we can’t lose this game.’ We just meshed I guess.”
Newport started off the second half with a bang as Dupar scored on a 54-yard run after breaking multiple Mercer Island tackles.
Lightning just about struck twice as Sinclair returned the ensuing kickoff 79 yards to the Newport 3-yard line. But Emanuels fumbled on the very next play, Newport’s Spencer Swansen recovered and, five plays later, the Knights took the lead for good when sophomore quarterback Isaac Dotson and senior wide receiver Kevin Martin connected on a 35-yard touchdown pass.
“The turnovers were the difference in the game,” Miller said. “Our defense really came through tonight.”
Mercer Island was denied again late in the third when Martin intercepted Lindquist at the goal line. The teams traded possessions until sophomore Eric Rodan scored Newport’s final touchdown on a 12-yard run with 8:59 left in the fourth quarter. Lindquist did his best to rally the Islanders, engineering a 9-play, 51-yard drive that capped off with a 6-yard touchdown strike to Eric Stefanchik.
Newport recovered the ensuing onside kick but couldn’t run out the clock. Mercer Island, down 28-21, took over the ball at their own 32-yard line with just 26.6 seconds remaining but could only move to their own 43 when Lindquist was sacked to end the game.
“Before that drive we just said, “we’re not losing,'” Murray said. “We just put on the jets and stopped them.”
Dupar led all rushers in the game with 160 yards and two touchdowns on 16 carries for Newport. Three other Newport players – running backs Rodan (67 yards), Louie Jachim (61 yards) and Dotson (56 yards) rushed for over 50 yards. The offense racked up 344 yards on the ground.
Lindquist finished 14 of 23 for 119 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions. Emanuels led the Islanders with 101 yards on 13 carries.
“That’s a physical football team there,” Miller said of Mercer Island. “They’re a different team than last year. But we had some great seniors who played lights out.”