TRAVERSE CITY — Homecoming usually puts a little bit more pressure on the home team to perform well.
The Traverse City West Titans celebrated theirs Friday at Thirlby Field, but the pressure was put on visiting Flint Carman-Ainsworth (1-5, 1-2 SVL-Blue) from the get-go.
The Titans (4-2, 1-1 Big North) used defensive line stunts and unrelenting pressure to get to Cavaliers Division 1-bound quarterback Dustin Fletcher all night long, leading to a 36-12 victory for TC West.
“We didn’t handle the pressure well,” Flint Carman-Ainsworth head coach Jerry Parker said. “Obviously there were plays when Dustin (Fletcher) stood up and there were guys in his face right away.
“We have seen more 5-2 defense and man coverage out of them in film. But they were moving around and we hadn’t seen any of that movement up front. They threw some different twists to us there, but it wasn’t something we hadn’t seen from other teams.”
The Titans defense went rogue to stop Fletcher, keeping three defenders shifting on the interior line most of the evening and rotating blitzing linebackers to keep the Northern Illinois-bound quarterback guessing.
The pressure worked to perfection, with Fletcher often not even having time to guess and being forced to tuck the ball and run with Titans bearing down on him.
“They (Flint Carman-Ainsworth) are incredible athletes across the board, and obviously Fletcher is a great player going to Northern Illinois, he can throw it and if you give him room, he can run,” Titans head coach Greg Vaughan said. “There were a couple breakaway runs that he had. You can’t allow him to have a lot of time back there. We don’t necessarily have the same athletes as they do, so you gotta bring pressure, but that’s kind of the name of the game on our defense anyways.”
The Titans’ offense added to the pressure early, scoring on their first drive of the game.
Starting quarterback Andy Soma returned to the field for TC West after a two-week absence while dealing with microfractures in his throwing hand. He came back looking like he never left.
“(Having Soma back) just builds a lot of confidence for our guys,” Titans senior Seth Gallagher said. “He loves being out here. Everybody loves him, everybody trusts him. He’s just got this kind of drive to him that pushes everybody a little bit further.”
Only three minutes into the contest, Soma found a wide open Gallagher on a play-action crossing route from 19 yards out to give TC West an early 7-0 lead.
The Titans game plan included jumping on the Cavaliers, and it only took three plays for it to happen following a blocked punt by Christian Boivin.
“That was really important because some of these games we have kind of missed a few drives near the end zone and had not been able to get started right away,” Soma said. “We kind of picked it up later in those games, but making this a full game was really important for us.”
The Titans put up points in every quarter and the defense seemed to grow stronger as the game wore on.
The Cavaliers found a bit of success in the second quarter with Fletcher opening their scoring with a 27-yard TD run on the quarter’s first play. They followed with a 76-yard passing strike to Norman Montgomery on a streak down the right sideline on their next possession. That’s all they would get.
“It just goes to show scheme wise what our kids are able to take in during the week and go out there and actually accomplish, so it’s just incredible,” Vaughan said of the defensive game plan. “It is a bend and don’t break type of defense with a lot of pressure.”
The Titans offense got rolling thanks to the play of their defense.
The first three punts by the Cavaliers were stifled with a block, a bad snap that led to a short scramble and a fake punt run that was stuffed in the backfield — giving the Titans stellar field position throughout the game.
Soma found the endzone on a 1-yard run that capped off a 68-yard second-quarter drive.
TC West even had a gaffe of their own on special teams when a snap sailed over the head of punter Mel Frechette and dribbled into the endzone. Frechette corralled the ball and got a kick off at the last second, only getting the ball to the 26-yard line. The Titans defense kept bringing the pressure and a holding penalty pushed the Cavaliers out of field goal range, resulting in an incompletion and a turnover on downs with 47 seconds left in the first half.
The Titans turned that into 44-yard drive that ended with a 40-yard field goal by Finn Durbin as time expired in the half, putting TC West up 19-12. Durbin also hit field goals from 23 and 35 yards.
The defense forced two turnovers in the second half and turned a fumble on their own 38-yard line into a six-minute drive that ended with an Aiden Griggs 1-yard TD run. Jack Grogan also intercepted a pass in the final minute to seal the win for the Titans.
Soma found Gallagher for another big score in the fourth quarter on the same play they found paydirt in the first quarter, only this time for a 65-yard touchdown. Gallagher finished with 121 total yards of offense and two receiving scores, while Soma went 6-for-11 passing for 119 yards with one interception, two passing scores and a rushing score.
“With those touchdown passes, I had plenty of time and that helped a lot,” Soma said. “I was able to scan downfield and find Seth open twice, which that time really helped — shout out to the O-line for sure.”
TC West dominated on the ground, tallying 232 rushing yards and setting up the play action that was so successful on Friday.
“We start with the ground game and once we punch it in enough, they’re gonna start cheating up,” Gallagher said. “So that’s when we can pull out our our pass game, it goes hand in hand with each other.”
Following the shutout defeat to Traverse City Central two weeks ago, the Titans have averaged 36.5 points per game and Gallagher said they have been firing on all cylinders to prove that game was a fluke.
Griggs led the ground attack for the Titans with 145 rushing yards and a score. Michael Schermerhorn had 10 tackles and a sack on defense and Boivin tallied 11 tackles and a blocked punt.
The Titans wanted to use Friday to build themselves up for the rest of their Big North Conference slate that includes their last three games against Cadillac, Gaylord and Petoskey.
“The idea was let’s be able to at least put points on the board and build some confidence,” Vaughan said. “I think that’s where we’re at offensively is building some confidence. We have confidence in our defense. We’ve got to build it on the offensive side.”