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High Schools | Eric Sondheimer

By Land or Air, Playoff Games Offer Contrast

November 23, 2001|Eric Sondheimer

It's time to choose sides, like good vs. evil, UCLA vs. USC, Pepsi vs. Coke, boxers vs. briefs.

This is the definitive weekend to learn what strategy works best in high school football--running or passing.

There are several playoff matchups in which teams have such contrasting offensive styles that everyone will know the reason for victory.

Look at tonight's Division X quarterfinal game between Inglewood (9-2) and Temple City (11-0). Inglewood has attempted 45 passes this season while rushing for close to 4,000 yards. Temple City has passed for more than 2,300 yards and 24 touchdowns.

"This is a classic matchup between the good old-fashion running game vs. the West Coast passing game," Inglewood Coach Kevin Moore said. "Let's see which team can enforce its will."

Then there's the Division III quarterfinal game between pass-happy Newhall Hart (10-0) and run-oriented Lancaster Antelope Valley (8-3). Antelope Coach Brent Newcomb catches more fish in one day than his team passes the ball.

"They're starting to call us 'Airlopes' because we put it in the air so much," Newcomb joked after his team attempted five passes in its playoff opener.

Antelope Valley quarterback Johnny Walker has rushed for 907 yards and attempted 53 passes. Hart quarterback Matt Moore, bound for UCLA, has passed for 2,394 yards and 26 touchdowns, and is the fourth consecutive Indian quarterback to receive an NCAA Division I-A scholarship.

In another Division III quarterfinal, the most pass-oriented team in the state, Crescenta Valley (11-0), takes on tailback-strong Valencia (9-2). It's quarterback Hudson Gossard, who has passed for 3,344 yards and 32 touchdowns, going against running back Charles Burnley, who has rushed for 1,487 yards and scored 20 touchdowns.

Coach Alan Eberhart of Crescenta Valley makes no apology for calling pass plays almost every down.

"There were years we could not throw the ball at all and we were 6-5," he said. "Those are the years you can't get a lot of sleep."

The running schools want to pound opponents into submission. The passing schools want to create havoc with deception and big plays.

The running schools think the passing schools are wimps. The passing schools think the running schools are stuck in the past.

The running schools dare defenses to stop them by using the mano-a-mano approach (hand-to-hand). The passing schools rely on finesse and innovative formations designed to produce one-on-one mismatches.

"I don't believe there's any necessary right way," Temple City Coach Mike Mooney said. "I believe you have to be able to run the ball at some point. That's why I'll never have an unbalanced offense passing 60 times a game."

Inglewood rushed for more than 7,000 yards last season in reaching the Division X final. The Sentinels don't mind that everyone knows what they're going to do.

"Teams know we're going to run the ball and it makes us more physical," offensive lineman Lawrence Jackson said.

Added Coach Moore: "We're a smash-mouth team. We have the mentality like they had at Nebraska and Oklahoma [in the 1970s]. Ten guys block and one guy runs. We're going to ride that wave until we're knocked off that surfboard."

The success of Hart's five-receiver attack convinced Crescenta Valley and others to become passing schools. But Coach Mike Herrington of Hart doesn't want people to get the wrong impression of the Indians' strategy.

"To be honest, you need to be balanced, but balanced doesn't mean balanced in a game," he said. "There might be a week you have to run the ball, then the next week pass. To win a championship, you have to be able to do both, but Crescenta Valley might put my theory to rest."

Most coaches will choose whichever philosophy best fits their personnel. The perfect example is Bob Johnson at Division II Mission Viejo. He was known as a passing expert during his days at Lake Forest El Toro.

But Mission Viejo might be the second-best team to Long Beach Poly this season because of its devastating rushing attack that has gained 3,176 yards.

"We're winning," Johnson said. "I'm all about winning."

Valencia Coach Brian Stiman keeps changing his opinion of what's most effective, running or passing.

"Sometimes when I see a team passing the ball, I think maybe we should do that," he said. "Then, when you see Mission Viejo running over people, I want to do that."

This weekend, everyone is going to find out once and for all what's better, running or passing.

No, that's not true. The debate is going to rage, regardless of who wins.

"They're saying, 'Come and get us,' and we're saying, 'We can,"' Temple City defensive back Desmond Reed said of taking on Inglewood's ground attack.

*

Eric Sondheimer can be reached at eric.sondheimer@latimes.com.

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