Despite getting off to a 3–1 start, the football team was still trying to find its stride on the field as it returned to South Hill for homecoming Saturday. In the Blue and Gold’s first loss of the season Sept. 25 against Lycoming College, the South Hill squad was held to -14 yards rushing on 22 carries.
Coming into this weekend’s Empire 8 conference opener against Hartwick College, the Blue and Gold demonstrated they were not a one-dimensional team, recording a season-high 145 rushing yards. Sophomore running back Clay Ardoin, who rushed a career-high 18 times for 111 yards in the 29–17 win, said the team’s coaches made it clear early in the week that improving the running game was the No. 1 priority.
“We knew we had to be more physical in the run game and take it to the defense early,” Ardoin said. “We needed to stay on the field, sustain our offense and pick up more first downs.”
The South Hill squad came out with that mentality, running eight times for 43 yards in the first quarter alone.
Head Coach Mike Welch said establishing a running game is vital to the team’s success moving forward this season.
“We had to run the football — period,” Welch said. “Getting off to the quick start was nice, but I was more happy that we were able to maintain it throughout the game.”
In their first three games, the Blue and Gold held large leads, and they didn’t need to consistently run for first downs late in games to preserve a victory. The inability to run the clock by controlling the ground game showed in the Bombers’ loss against Lycoming. Welch said the running game also plays a significant role on the defensive side of the ball.
“When you aren’t able to run the football consistently you dig yourself in a pretty deep hole,” Welch said. “The fact that we were able to sustain our offense through the run game and let our defense take a couple of breathers was huge for us.”
The running game also benefited from the return of senior left tackle Leland King who missed the past three games with a foot injury. The Bombers consistently attacked Hartwick’s left side, running behind the 6-foot-6-inch, 290-pound King. King said the entire offensive line was hitting its blocks, which led to better openings for the running backs.
“We were really able to get downfield on our blocks and turn the 3- and 4-yard runs into 15- and 20-yard runs,” King said. “The foot felt fine. Getting my lungs back was the tough part.”
Welch said having one of the team’s leaders back on the field for the offense was beneficial.
“[King] started off a little slow getting back up to game speed,” Welch said. “But he got better as the game went along and created some nice holes for [Ardoin] and [senior running back Dan Ruggiero] to run through.”
Coming off of the Lycoming game, King said the coaches stressed the importance of getting the running game going.
“We got a wake-up call last week,” King said. “The coaches really lit a fire under us this week in practice and instilled a sense of urgency to perform at a level we knew we are capable of playing at.”
Welch said consistency will be key as the Bombers head into their next game Saturday against defending Empire 8 conference champion St. John Fisher College at Fisher’s homecoming.
“It’s a huge game for us, no question about it,” Welch said. “They’re the top dogs in the conference, and we know in order to beat them we have to be able to utilize our whole offense in order to keep them honest.”