What a difference a year makes.
In 2018, the Niwot offense couldn’t get much going against the George Washington Patriots and limped home after a 36-0 shutout that saw less than 150 yards combined rushing and passing. In 2019, against the same team with largely the same players, the Cougars racked up more than 300 yards and scored four rushing touchdowns in their best offensive performance of the past three years. So what changed in the last twelve months? According to just about everyone in attendance, including the player responsible for most of those offensive yards, “It was all the linemen.”
“It’s just 10 times different this year,” senior running back Liam Flanagan said after rushing for a career best 210 yards and three touchdowns in Niwot’s30-18 win over the Patriots on Aug. 30. “We all play together, and it’s more of like a family bond. I just felt so much of a difference, and it’s all thanks to the linemen.”
That was also the assessment of senior Jovani Lopez, who moved to fullback from center this season, and scored his first career touchdown in the third quarter. He ended the game with 36 yards on four carries.
“It felt amazing, but I couldn’t have done it without my friend Erick Fernandez, one of the linemen. Actually, all of the linemen. I couldn’t have done it without them.”
For third-year head coach Jeremy Lanter, the play of his offensive line was just one of the highlights of what he called “our best football since I’ve been here.”
“Our kids were excited, even in the momentum dips, they never really lost control of themselves, so I’m pretty proud about that. We still need to focus on some of the penalties that we’re having, but we have a young group of kids—we started two sophomores, one on offense, and one on defense—and they performed beautifully.”
It wasn’t a perfect game, but Lanter couldn’t find much to criticize in Niwot’s performance on either side of the ball. Flanagan took the opening kick-off for 27 yards to set up a long Niwot drive that didn’t result in points, but did set the stage for a dominant rushing performance. Flanagan would get the ball repeatedly in the Cougars’ first two possessions, and finally put his team on the board with a five-yard scramble in the opening seconds of the second quarter. A successful two-point conversion gave Niwot an 8-0 lead.
A lightning delay sent both teams inside with five minutes remaining in the half, but not before a George Washington rushing touchdown made the score 8-6. Back on the field, senior Matt Bitterman intercepted a Patriots pass, but the Cougars couldn’t convert it into points, and the half ended with Niwot up by two.
George Washington rattled off a big run early in the third, then punched it in from the 1-yd line to go ahead 12-8, but Niwot’s ground game proved too much for the Patriots after that. Lopez scored the go ahead touchdown late in the quarter, and then Flanagan finished them off in the fourth, helped by a timely interception and 48-yard return by sophomore Easten Leatherwood. The Cougars went on to win 30-18, and were mobbed on the field by an ecstatic home crowd.
Afterwards, Lanter said he would have preferred a more balanced attack on offense, but, by the end of the first quarter, it was clear the Patriots didn’t have much of an answer for the Cougars’ running attack.
“Our goal is always to be 50/50. However, when we can get anything between three to eight yards per running play, then we have to run the ball. I think we saw early on that we could do that. Liam started off pretty hot, and Dylan Sims stepped in there and did well.”
The Cougars ended the night with 303 yards on 44 carries, their highest total since 2016. To be sure, Flanagan bore most of the load, but he was well supported by Lopez, and juniors Sims (6-for-26) and Isaac Fisk (3-for-28). But Lanter was also quick to point out that they owed most of their success to the other supporting cast members.
“There’s not a lot of returning experience on our offensive line. Zach Coblentz is back. ... We have a sophomore, Matt Duncan, starting at center; we have Charlie Herring, who played a little bit for us last year due to injury and played really well tonight; and then James Cummins, who was kind of on fire tonight and did a great job for us.”
That meant a fairly quiet night for junior quarterback Ayden Bartko, at least in the air. He converted on three of Niwot’s four two-point attempts, and ended the night with 28 yards on five passes, the longest an eight-yard bootleg to Flanagan, who led Niwot in receiving (15 yards). Fisk and Julian Bell also caught passes.
While the offense was making headlines, Niwot’s defense also had one of its best performances of the Jeremy Lanter era. Though the Patriots did have a handful of big plays on the ground and in the air, the Cougars were clearly more efficient at the line and showed more speed on the outside.
“We were tackling well tonight,” he said. “Our kids were doing a good job of breaking down, and I was just excited that we didn’t see a whole lot of heads at the point of attack, where your risk of injury goes up. Our kids were very disciplined about breaking feet down, wrapping up legs, and making sure they kept their heads out of the game. That was awesome.”
Lanter credited his new defensive coordinator and younger brother Link Lanter, who previously helmed the defense at Roosevelt.
“His energy and his enthusiasm brings a lot to what we do, and there’s a reason he was nominated for Assistant Coach of the Year last year. It would be silly for me to think that that wasn’t a huge influence.”
Though penalties remain a concern for the coach, the Cougars committed fewer drive-killing infractions than in the past. They also avoided the turnover bug that has been a problem for Lanter’s Cougars over the past two seasons. Niwot’s kicking game is also still a work in progress, but Lanter said he felt, “really good about our two-point conversion game.”
Of course, one win does not a season make, and Lanter was hesitant to project too far ahead into the season. For now, he is looking ahead to the upcoming game against Greeley Central and eager to see how the lessons from the win payoff against a tougher opponent.
“I hope it builds the confidence of our kids, having a win right off the bat. I don’t think it changes what our goals are or what our mission and purpose are. I think confidence is growing, and I’d rather ride confidence.”