West Monroe offensive coordinator Glenn Hunt has been rather blunt with his unit this year.
"Defense has carried us," Hunt said. "I told our guys the defense can't carry us all year. There's going to be games where we have to take control. And I thought we did that tonight."
The No. 10 West Monroe Rebels exited a two-week quarantine with a playoff victory Friday night, but the 44-26 victory against No. 23 Chalmette was far more competitive than Rebel fans are used to seeing in the first round of the playoffs.
The Rebels entered Friday night’s contest averaging 48 points in the first round for the past six seasons.
In recent history, West Monroe enjoyed a fast start before cruising in the second-half to a lopsided victory, but Friday was a different story.
Actually Chalmette was the team that had the quick start in Rebel Stadium Friday night, as the Owls marched the football 51 yards on a nine-play drive, ultimately punching the Rebels in the mouth with a scoring drive out of the gates.
"They were a pretty doggone good football team to be a 23 seed," West Monroe head coach Jerry Arledge said.
West Monroe’s Ty Allen and Brock Harvey stuffed the Owls on a third-and-short from the Rebels 31-yard line on the drive, but on 4th-and-2, freshman quarterback Greg Donaldson picked up the first down with a quarterback power. Three plays later, Donaldson pushed his way in from two yards out on a quarterback sneak. The Owls enjoyed a 6-0 lead after a blocked PAT.
The Rebels might’ve been sluggish one day after Thanksgiving, but senior running back Derome Williams got West Monroe on the right track by breaking tackles and slipping through defenders on three violent runs that ended with him fighting off a defender in the end zone. Williams had 60 yards on three rushes on the Rebels’ first scoring drive of the night, as Luke Stagg’s PAT gave West Monroe a 7-6 lead.
Williams had a career night with 268 yards and four rushing touchdowns on 25 carries.
"Offense had to show up," Williams said. "We wanted to keep scoring and pick the energy up."
The Rebels defense returned to form on the ensuing series. Senior linebacker Peyton Todd, who was cleared after suffering an ankle injury before the season, recorded a tackle for loss before he and fellow senior Ty Allen combined for a sack on third-and-long.
"This is something I've been looking forward to for 14 weeks now," Todd said. "As soon as I had the surgery, I couldn't wait to get back. Getting flexibility back in my ankle and getting my leg strengthened back up. I'm just so thankful to be able to get out here my senior year and get to play with my boys."
The game was stopped on the Rebels next offensive possession when Rebel fullback Noah Norman suffered a broken tibia and fibula, which required immediate surgery Friday night. Norman’s leg was wrapped in a cast on the field and he was taken off on a stretcher. With the crowd rising to its feet, Norman gave a thumbs up to the West Monroe faithful.
The Rebels drove the football deep into Chalmette territory with strong runs from freshman fullback John Pearson, but a fumbled snap prevented the Rebels from adding to their 7-6 lead late in the first quarter.
Ty Titus got in the on the action next, as he recorded a sack on the Owls next possession. But the Owls’ ground game continued to churn out yards, and more importantly, first downs. Jalen Smith gave West Monroe’s defense all it could handle, as the Owls senior tailback shrugged off defenders between the tackles and bounced it outside with powerful runs that culminated in stiff arms. Chalmette drove it all the way to the West Monroe 1, but the Rebels defense built a wall on the goal line. On 4th-and-goal, Tag Banks and Todd combined to tackle Smith in the backfield for the goal line stand.
The Rebels had to punt on the ensuing possession and Williams fumbled one series later, which opened the door for the Owls to take the lead. Chalmette turned to the air after the Rebels turnover and it paid off with a 45-yard touchdown pass from Donaldson to Lawrence Jenkins. The Owls PAT was blocked, but Chalmette led 12-7 lead late in the half.
West Monroe answered, as Williams more than made up for that fumble with a 64-yard touchdown run. A Chauncey Lee fumble recovery at the Rebels’ 25-yard line two plays later set up another eventual Rebel touchdown. Pearson was inches away from scoring on a fullback dive, but he fumbled into the end zone and teammate Rylan Green jumped on the loose ball for the score.
Williams had 162 yards and two touchdowns on 11 carries at halftime, and West Monroe took a 21-12 lead into the locker room.
"We knew when he was a sophomore, we'd hand him the ball 30 or 40 times in a JV game, and he was unbelievable even back then," Arledge said. "I thought he had a great year last year. He's bigger. He's stronger, and he's got a little more competition back there. You bring someone in to give him a couple plays off, and it's amazing what it does for a player."
The second half featured both Josh Pearson and John Pearson in the Rebels backfield, as the brothers shared reps on a 16-play drive that culminated in a turnover on downs inside the Owls’ 10-yard line.
Josh Pearson, who recently signed to play baseball for LSU, was a standout on the gridiron before he decided to focus on baseball.
"About three weeks ago (Josh) mentioned something to Coach Arledge about coming back, and Coach Arledge thought about it for a couple weeks," Hunt said. "This year is different. With contact tracing, we might have multiple running backs knocked out of a game."
Arledge said he normally wouldn't allow a player to join so late, but the unexpected twists and turns of 2020 worked in Josh Pearson's favor.
As a team, the Rebels rushed for 416 yards in the win.
West Monroe turned a negative into a positive, as the turnover pinned Chalmette's back against the wall. Allen harassed Donaldson in the end zone before Donaldson threw the ball away. The officials threw a flag for intentional grounding, expanding the Rebels lead to 23-12 midway into the third quarter.
The Rebels broke through Chalmette’s interior with more violent runs from Williams. and John Pearson showcased his rugged rushing style. The drive ended with a 3-yard touchdown run from Williams, as his rushing total eclipsed 236 yards with two minutes to play in the third quarter.
Trailing 30-12, Donaldson found Gavin Burtchaell for the 5-yard score with 17 seconds remaining in the third quarter. The 2-point conversion was good, reducing West Monroe’s lead to 30-20 heading into the fourth quarter.
The Owls carved into that lead further one series later when a halfback pass saw Ke’Malice Anderson complete a 77-yard pass to Teryan Nelson, which set up a Donaldson score two plays later.
Leading 30-26, Rylan Green returned a short kick to Chalmette’s 40-yard line with just over eight minutes remaining in the playoff encounter. Williams’ fourth touchdown of the night gave West Monroe some much-needed cushion.
West Monroe added another late score when Josh Pearson found the end zone on a 5-yard rush. That was Pearson's first varsity touchdown.
West Monroe improved to 27-2 in the first round of the playoffs. The Rebels have now won 27 straight opening round playoff games, all at home.
The Rebels will turn their attention to No. 7 Central (Baton Rouge) for a second-round matchup. The Rebels will travel to play a Central squad that upset West Monroe in 2013.
"Second round they came in here and shut us out 14-0," Arledge said. "Yeah, we know about Central."