CONCORD — On a field full of top recruits and in front of a national TV audience, Shamar Garrett showed he could hang with the big boys, running 17 times for 190 yards, but penalties and turnovers proved costly as De La Salle fell 24-14 to St. Thomas Aquinas of Florida, one of the top teams in the nation.
The Spartans committed three turnovers, including a key fumble to keep them from tying the game just before halftime, and were flagged 12 times for 76 yards, including nine penalties in the first half alone as the visiting Raiders pitched a shutout in the second half to live up to their national reputation.
Even with those mistakes, Garrett still impressed, running for 57 yards on the first play from scrimmage and dominating over the course of the evening, even against a defense full of national recruits under the tutelage of NFL Hall of Famer Jason Taylor.
Taylor himself was impressed with Garrett, saying, “I pulled him aside when we were shaking hands and told him, I don’t care what anybody says about his size, he’s a heck of a football player.”
While many of Aquinas’ players have offers from SEC and ACC schools, ranked as three and four-star players by national recruiting outlets, Garrett doesn’t have the same prestige attached to his name. He currently has three offers from Mountain West schools, but he proved on Friday that he could hang with the high-level recruits.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that he did so in front of Taylor, who played at Akron in the Mid-American Conference and went on to earn his place in Canton.
“He’s an awesome player who played against an awesome team,” head coach Justin Alumbaugh said of Garrett. “He’s better than a lot of people give him credit for.”
As much as Garrett proved himself to be capable of playing at the next level, there were still reminders that De La Salle (0-1) is a team of high schoolers, making the sort of mistakes that most teams make early in the season. The Spartans committed six penalties before the end of the first quarter, and they seemed to be just slightly out of sync throughout the night. They turned it over on downs three times, and would have done so a fourth time if not for a controversial call that helped St. Thomas Aquinas (1-0) put the game away.
Facing fourth-and-six at the Aquinas 31 with just under seven minutes left, Dorian Hale connected with Lu Magia Hearns on a short pass that was knocked loose by Blaine Anderson. While nearly all 22 players on the field thought the play was dead, including Colby Dempsey, who had picked up the loose ball, the referees never blew the whistle, and Dempsey returned it all the way to the DLS 28, setting up a Noah Botsford 38-yard field goal to make it a two-score game.
“That’s a good crew, and they’re making bang-bang calls. It’s not what cost us the game,” Alumbaugh said. “It is what it is, and we had opportunities to make plays. We could have avoided that if we were playing better.”
Botsford’s field goal accounted for the only points of the second half as Taylor had helped the Raider defense lock the game up in the final two quarters. With Tyreak Sapp, nephew of seven-time Pro Bowler Warren Sapp, starring at defensive tackle and 4-star recruit Derek Wingo notching a key sack of Hale in the third quarter, the only real threat De La Salle had to score in the second half came on the drive that ended on the incompletion-turned-fumble. That pass was just one of eight that the Spartans would complete on the night as Hale went 9-for-24 against Aquinas’ monster pass rush, throwing for 109 yards. Hearns had a team-high five catches, but for just 31 yards.
“They put a lot of pressure on us,” Alumbaugh said. “That’s what they try to do, and that’s why they’re so successful at it.”
As much of a defensive clinic as the second half was, the first half was a remarkable offensive display. Garrett brought the Spartans into the red soze with the first play from scrimmage to set up a two-yard James Coby touchdown run, and Aquinas quickly answered with an 11-yard touchdown run on a Zion Turner keeper. The Raiders needed just seven plays to cover 48 yards after a short kickoff that exemplified the wealth of talent on their roster. DLS tried a short kick to avoid the stud kick returners lined up near the end zone, but The’Andris Freeman was able to pick up an 18-yard return to get the visitors across midfield.
“It was a tale of two halves,” Alumbaugh said.
The next Spartan drive stalled at the Aquinas 18 despite a 27-yard run by Garrett and a 19-yard scamper by Coby, and after the teams traded punts, Aquinas took the lead with the play of the night, a 71-yard touchdown from Turner to Georgia commit Marcus Rosemy, another high 4-star recruit, who pulled in the ball with one hand and left the defense in the dust.
The hosts would get their much-needed answer less than two minutes later as Garrett started the ensuing drive with a 28-yard run and Coby scored on a 43-yard sprint, but it would be their last time finding the end zone. A fumble on the first play of the next drive for Aquinas set the Spartans up right at the edge of the red zone, but a too many men flag brought up a fourth-and-11 on which Hale overthrew Grant Daley. Hale would connect with Daley on a 38-yard gain to get the Spartans across midfield in the final minutes of the half, and two runs by Garrett for first downs would take the home side into the red zone, but Anthony Hankerson recovered a fumbled snap to thwart the drive with 50 seconds remaining before the break.
On a night where De La Salle needed to play flawless football, it was mistakes like those that sent the Spartans to defeat.
“We better smooth it out,” Alumbaugh said. “A lot of things that need to be shored up.”