Niles dominates Howland

Tribune Chronicle / R. Michael Semple Niles’ Robbie Savin rushes for long yardage during early third-quarter action Thursday at Howland. The Red Dragons beat the Tigers, 28-6.

HOWLAND — The series of events was long, frustrating and left just about everyone confused.

Not the Niles football team. They were focused.

The Red Dragons took advantage of a strange call right before halftime for a back-breaking score and pulled away from Howland in a 28-6 victory over their crosstown rivals.

“I really didn’t know what was going on,” Niles quarterback Zack Leonard said. “… I just wanted to score another touchdown and win this game.”

The Red Dragons (2-6, 1-3 All-American Conference, Red Tier) did just that, but there was some explaining to do first.

Tribune Chronicle / R. Michael Semple Howland’s Jordan Fronzaglio is stopped by a Niles defender during the first half of the Tigers game against Niles.

Niles led, 14-0, but Howland (1-7, 0-3) was driving near midfield when Tigers quarterback Jordan Fronzaglio threw an interception. As Niles’ Kyle Lundgren was being tackled on the return, he fumbled and Howland recovered. However, Niles took over on downs after the officials conferenced for about 20 minutes, moved the ball back to midfield, conferenced again and then moved the ball forward to where Lundgren was tackled.

According to both coaches, the referees said a personal foul occurred during the return, so therefore the fumble was irrelevant because of the penalty. That all led to the Red Dragons taking over at Howland’s 14, and three plays later, Robbie Savin scored from 6 yards out to give Niles a commanding 21-0 lead.

“It’s hard to come back from those types of (situations),” Howland coach Steve Boyle said. “When you lose field position, you lose momentum.”

The Tigers struggled with field position from the start.

On the opening kickoff, the Howland returner anticipated the ball going out of bounds, but it settled at the 2, and he was forced to fall on the ball. While Niles wasn’t able to score, the Red Dragons forced another three-and-out and again got great field position at the Tigers’ 21. This time they took advantage, taking a 7-0 lead when Leonard scored on a quarterback draw on fourth-and-3 from the 13.

The sophomore QB completed 10-of-16 passes for 110 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. He said regardless of the teams’ records, this game meant a lot.

“It means everything to us,” he said. “The records may not be that good, but if you win this game, it’s a successful season.”

The Red Dragons then went up 14-0 when Leonard hit tight end David Mays on third-and-7 from the 8-yard line. That set up the strange chain of events that led to Niles taking a 21-0 lead with 1:02 left in the first half.

The Tigers struggled offensively. Howland actually outgained the Red Dragons 257 to 254, but bad field position and an inability to finish drives led to an insurmountable 28-0 deficit. Nathan Barrett made several impressive catches for the Tigers (5 receptions for 108 yards), including a 15-yard TD pass in which he ripped the ball away from a defender early in the fourth quarter. It was too little, too late though.

Niles’ defense made big plays in key moments and never allowed Howland any sustained success.

“All year we’ve had a horrible time on third down getting off the field,” Niles coach Jim Parry said. “We play pretty good defense on first and second down, but today, really on both sides of the ball, I thought we made our third-down conversions when we needed them and then we got off the field (on defense). It was a great week of preparation by our defensive coaches, and the kids executed.”

Howland had some chances early in the third quarter. The Red Dragons fumbled the second-half kickoff, and the Tigers took over at the Niles 22. They moved to the four but went backwards and narrowly missed a touchdown pass on fourth-and-goal form the 9.

The Tigers moved inside the Niles 10 on the next drive as well, but again moved backwards due to a holding penalty. A 2-yard gain and three incompletions from the 15 turned the ball over on downs.

“We’ve got to continue to try to find something that we can do on offense,” Boyle said. “Defensively, we’ve got to tackle better. Special teams wise, we’ve got to play smarter and get ourselves in better field position.”

Savin ran for 111 yards and one TD on 21 carries, and he was the Red Dragons’ leading tackler from his linebacker position. He and the rest of Red Dragons were able to give a large visiting crowd plenty to cheer about in a game that will likely leave a lasting impression.

“Niles-Howland, this is the biggest game on our schedule,” said Parry, a Niles graduate. “Given that you’re 1-6, I guess that’s easy to say, but year in and year out, our kids want to beat Howland more than anyone else.

“I told them, it was 29 years ago we lost to Howland my senior year, and I haven’t forgot about that, so this helped soften that blow.”