Star Sports Correspondent
ALEXANDRIA — It was homecoming at Alexandria but the event took on a whole different meaning for first-year Saks head football coach Jonathan Miller, an Alexandria alumnus.
After a scoreless first half, Miller’s Saks team capitalized on a lengthy punt return for one touchdown and a long drive for the game winner and defeated the Valley Cubs 12-7.
The non-region win extended the Wildcats’ winning streak to four games. Miller said the victory would be a confidence boost for a team recovering from the loss of 17 seniors in 2011.
“We’re playing hard. They’ve done everything the coaching staff’s asked of them. My hat’s off to our kids,” Miller said. “It was a great win. We want to win them all, regardless of who we’re playing, region game, non-region game, whatever.”
Alexandria led 7-6 when the Valley Cubs (2-3) punted with a minute remaining in the third quarter and the Wildcats took over at the Saks 44-yard line. Seven minutes and 16 plays later, senior running back LaDarius Young scored from six yards out. The Cubs stopped a 2-point conversion attempt short of the goal line but Saks had its 12-7 advantage with 5:46 to play.
“LaDarius has done a great job running the football. The offensive line has done an excellent job. We thought eventually he’s going to find the end zone if we just keep blocking,” said Miller.
The Wildcats had just 90 yards of total offense in the second half but 66 came in the drive that produced the winning touchdown. Saks overcame three penalties totaling 20 yards along the way. The drive appeared to be halted when quarterback Chase Johnson was sacked on a fourth-and-13 play from the Alexandria 34 but Alexandria was penalized 10 yards for holding downfield. With renewed life, Johnson passed to Tre Smith in traffic for four yards and a first down on fourth-and-3. Two plays earlier, Smith had dropped the same pass but Miller didn’t think twice about calling on Smith again.
“That was a big fourth down play … when he hit Tre. That was just and excellent throw and catch between those two guys,” Miller said. “We’re going to get the ball to Tre and Chase can throw it. We’re not going to hesitate to throw the football.”
Three plays later, it was third-and-15 but Young ran for 14 yards on a draw and broke through at left tackle for six more yards and a first down on the next play. Young ran nine times for 33 yards on the drive and finished with 121 yards net on 26 rushes.
“We probably changed our play call up a little bit but in the first half we were just one block here or there from breaking one,” Miller said of the scoring drive. “Their defensive line played a heck of a game. Seemed like they were in the backfield most of the night. We got it done when it counted. Our offensive line stepped up and blocked and Tre and LaDarius ran the football and Chase managed the game.”
Alexandria had two more opportunities with the ball but Saks held the Cubs on downs at the Saks 32 and Young intercepted a Tanner Wells pass with 35 seconds remaining to seal the victory.
“Defensively, they just whipped us up front all night,” Alexandria coach Frank Tucker said. “They were well prepared and just shut us down.”
The Valley Cubs’ touchdown came on a 69-yard run by Justice Owens with 5:33 to go in the third quarter. Owens cleared the line of scrimmage around left end then cut to the middle of the field, slipped through an arm tackle and out-ran the Saks secondary to the goal line. Gabe Marchal’s kick made it 7-6 Alexandria.
Owens ran 23 times for 182 yards. Saks made life miserable for Wells who was tackled for a loss five times and forced to scramble on several more plays,
The game’s initial touchdown came on a 72-yard punt return by the Wildcats’ Smith. The ball landed in front of Smith at the Saks 30, hit him and bounced back two yards before he recovered it and headed up field. Miller said a bobbled punt often takes the punting team out of its coverage lanes.
“I really thought as long as he got hold of the ball something good was going to happen,” Miller said of Smith’s return.
With its infusion of confidence, Saks returns to region play at Glencoe Friday. Alexandria must regroup before it plays at region foe Munford Thursday.
“We’re facing a true test of character,” Tucker said. “If we have it, we’ll bounce back.”