Taking on another bigger school, Class 3A, DII Clifton meets challenge but falls short on scoreboard in home opener
CLIFTON – During the previous six seasons at the helm, Clifton football head coach Chuck Caniford has never shied away from playing tough non-district schedules in preparation for a run toward the playoffs. And during that stretch, the strategy has led to six consecutive postseason berths.
Using the same approach in 2020, the Class 3A, Division II Cubs hope it produces the same results.
Despite another strong effort from the Clifton defensive unit, Class 3A, DI’s Little River-Academy put together enough points to hold off a late rally and post a hard-fought 17-10 victory in the home opener at Cub Stadium last Friday night.
“For the second week in a row, we’ve faced a quality opponent from a bigger classification,” said Caniford, also referencing the season-opening 25-14 loss to Class 4A, DII Sanger Aug. 28 at Aledo’s Bearcat Stadium. “As much as we don’t like the outcome, we understand that these games are going to help us get better. We can learn a lot from last night’s game. If you aren’t challenged, you can’t grow.
“We played really well defensively, and at times, we did good things on offense. We just have to continue to improve our execution and work to eliminate turnovers. That has been the difference in the first two games. You can’t have a negative turnover margin and beat quality opponents.”
Clifton (0-2) took the opening kickoff and exploited a soft spot up the middle of the Bumblebee defense to march into the red zone. On the Cubs’ first play from scrimmage, junior quarterback Griffin Phillips broke through for a 56-yard run to the Little River-Academy 14-yard line before Clifton settled for a 28-yard field goal by senior Jose Ramirez with 9:28 left in the first quarter.
But the Cubs were unable to set on the scoreboard again until 2:47 left in the game. In between scores, Clifton turned the ball over three times, two directly leading to Bumblebee points.
“Turnovers have been our Achilles heel,” Caniford said. “We scored on our first possession of the game, and then turned it over on the subsequent two possessions, both times around midfield. We were putting together good drives at that point, but were stalled by turnovers.
“We didn’t play particularly well in the third quarter. But we came back and put together a nice drive in the fourth to get it to a one-score game.”
After forcing a Little River-Academy (2-0) punt from deep in its own territory, the Cubs marched 51 yards on six plays, all on the ground as Phillips cashed in with a three-yard touchdown run. Sophomore Joe Taylor proved the drive’s big play with a bulldozing 30-yard run up the middle.
Phillips finished as Clifton leading rusher with 89 yards on 12 carries, followed by junior Jimmie Taylor with 46 on 13 attempts and Joe Taylor with 35 on eight, although the Cubs only produced 180 yards of total offense.
In what proved to be a defensive struggle the entire game, the Cubs came up with a big stop in the first half to keep it a one-score game. Then in the second half, the Cubs held the Bees to a field goal early in the fourth quarter to keep Clifton in a two-score game and a possible late rally.
“Again, I was very pleased with how we played defensively against a team that has quite a few dynamic weapons on the offensive side of the ball,” Caniford said. “I was especially proud of the fight our kids showed in the fourth quarter. They could have easily given up, but they kept fighting and gave us a chance late in the game.”
Defensively, Jimmie Taylor led the Cubs with 10 tackles and two sacks, followed by Phillips with seven tackles, freshman Riley Finney with five takedowns, as well as senior Devin Byrd, and sophomores Larrett Thomas and Joe Taylor with four each.
Despite being a young team, the Cubs have played back-to-back opponents from higher classifications, and had a chance to win both games.
“I think we are a lot closer to where we want to be than our kids probably realize,” Caniford said. “There are just some little things that we have to do more consistently to sustain drives and put points on the board.
“Our young guys are learning some quality lessons against some quality opponents, and that is only going to help once we get into district play. They just have to trust the process and understand that gold balls aren’t awarded until district play. And as long as we get better every week, we will have the opportunity to compete for another one.”
Photos by DAVID HARDING
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