Cleveland’s fancy-passing offense has proven to be no passing fancy in the Two Rivers 3A Conference.
The Rams, who earned the football crown in 2015, took another prolific step Saturday toward a possible repeat – and shattered the school’s single-game scoring record in the process.
Thanks in part to 361 passing yards from senior Caiden Norman, Cleveland broke open a tight game in the third period and went on to defeat host South Johnston by a 70-54 margin at Ronald Avery Stadium.
It was the first time that the Rams had hit the 70-point mark in the six-year history of the school’s gridiron program. Norman’s passing total was the third-highest of his career, and he tacked on six throwing touchdowns and one rushing score – just one short of his career TD mark of eight.
“Getting the school points record – that was fun,’’ Norman said. “It feels good when we have everything clicking.’’
Cleveland (5-3, 2-0) raced onto the field before the contest through a banner that stated “Get Your Popcorn, We’re Putting On A Show.” That proved to be the case as the Rams’ spread offense proved to be difficult to contain once again.
South Johnston (3-5, 1-1) actually led late in the first half, but the Rams would pull away with 28 unanswered points as the Trojans couldn’t find the end zone in the third quarter.
“”It’s tough to score that many points and lose,’’ said South Johnston running back Fabian McDonald. “It was neck-and-neck at the beginning of the game, but (Cleveland) just started pulling away from us.’’
Neither defense could stop the opposing offense in the first half, and the Trojans went ahead 41-35 on McDonald’s 13-yard touchdown burst at the 34-second mark of the second period. But strange as it may sound, that proved to be too much time left on the clock as the red-hot Norman connected with Jon Barnes on a 33-yard TD strike just seven ticks short of the break. Following a successful PAT from Bailey King, Cleveland took a 42-41 lead into the break. The Rams began the second half with a pair of Norman touchdown passes in addition to a 25-yard touchdown gallop from Tyson Dew to surge ahead 63-41.
During the decisive stretch, South Johnston’s offense, which had been able to break containment and get outside in the first half, was hemmed in and held scoreless.
“We adjusted a lot during the game,’’ Cleveland linebacker Jonathon Kisner said. “In the second half, we added a defensive linemen, and I switched up with one of our other linebackers, which allowed me to rush the passer more. We feel like, with our offense, that we can get (a win) if we can come up with some stops on defense.’’
THREE TO KNOW
Caiden Norman, Cleveland: A two-year starter behind center, Norman was the area’s leading passer in 2015 – and is well on his way to repeating that achievement this fall. He completed 22 of 32 passes and now has 2,398 throwing yards this season.
“We all play for each other,’’ Norman said. “When everybody likes each other, you just naturally play better. We also have a good scheme that allows us to take advantage of the best matchups we have on gthe field.’’
Tyson Dew, Cleveland: A sophomore running back with speed and power, Dew fits perfectly into the Rams’ spread offense. He runs the ball hard, as evidenced by his 123 rushing yards and two scores. But Dew also caught four passes for 171 yards, with three of them resulting in touchdowns. One of the passing scores came on a fourth-down play in the second period that tied the score at 35-35.
Fabian McDonald, South Johnston: Known more for his wide receiving prowess, McDonald has made a successful switch to the backfield in 2016. Saturday, he rushed for four touchdowns and finished with a career-high 234 rushing yards. He also caught one pass for 38 yards.
“At first, I didn’t know if it was going to go well,’’ McDonald said of his preseason position move. “I bought into it and it has worked. I want to do what was best for the team.’’
McDonald will represent the Trojans at the Shrine Bowl of the Carolinas Football Game in December in South Carolina as a wide receiver.’’
BY THE NUMBERS
172: McDonald came through with 172 rushing yards in the first period alone, which ended with the South Johnston leading 28-21.
83: The clubs combined for an amazing 83 points in one half before Cleveland, with a lead secured, chose to be more deliberate and time-consuming over the closing stretch of the contest.
31: Norman now has 31 passing touchdowns in 2016 as he continues to shatter the Rams’ record book. Saturday’s yardage total of 361 was the third-highest of Norman’s career.
2: There were only two punts in the outing – one from each squad.
5: Cleveland has scored 40 points or more in five of its eight contests this season.
The spread offense is en vogue in high school football these days. But few teams do it better than Cleveland, which has known no other offense during its brief history. Members of the Rams’ coaching staff brought the offense over from their successful time together at Harnett Central.
Of course, it takes plenty of talent and teamwork for the spread to work, especially at the level the Rams’ perform at.
“We have always been a spread team,’’ said Cleveland coach Scott Riley, who has been at the Johnston County school since its inception – including the past three campaigns as the head coach. “The thing about the spread is that it makes kids have to tackle in the open field. To me, that is the hardest thing to do in high school football, and it is what the spread is intended to make the defense do.’’
Few players in area history have been as prolific behind center as Norman. But after starting as a JV quarterback as a ninth-grader, Norman was a wide receiver on the varsity during his sophomore year, and was an All-Two Rivers Conference selection.
“Caiden has always been a quarterback,’’ Riley said. “But we had a really good senior at quarterback when Caiden was in the 10th grade, so he moved to wide receiver to do what was best for the team. He did a great job at receiver, and I think that varsity experience really helped him. But we knew he was going (back to behind center) for his junior year.’’
OUT OF BOUNDS
Riley has always been a defensive coach, and it’s almost a given that a defense is going to allow some points when its offense runs the spread – and gets on and off the field quickly.
Though he would love to see his club’s defensive numbers go down, Riley also understands that’s part of the full-speed-ahead game the Rams prefer to utilize.
“As a coach, you want to do whatever works to help your team win,’’ Riley said. “Right now, our offense is high-octane. But things tend to run in cycles, so our defense might be (the program’s dominant aspect) in the future.’’