July 22, 2018
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Maine football teams don’t run like they used to

By Ernie Clark, BDN Staff

Ryan Libby appreciates the rhythm of high school football based on his own experience as a linebacker and offensive lineman at Skowhegan Area High School until his graduation in 2001.

But he’s also aware the game has changed dramatically since those days of playing the wing-T offense under coach Bob LeCours, with spread offenses now the norm in both the NFL and college football ranks.

The trickle-down effect has seen spread formations envelop the Maine high school scene, though many schools use them to advance somewhat traditional ground games.

But not at Skowhegan, where Libby is now the interim head coach this fall after serving as defensive coordinator under Matt Friedman, now an assistant at Husson University.

The ball has been flying around Reggie Clark Memorial Field for the last few seasons, first with 2016 Fitzpatrick Trophy semifinalist Garrett McSweeney at quarterback and now with junior Marcus Christopher targeting a veteran receiving corps.

“I think it’s definitely a lot more fun than lining up and handing the ball off every time,” said Christopher, whose father Jon is a former quarterback at neighboring Madison Area Memorial High School and today serves as the athletic administrator at Skowhegan. “I like to be able to throw it a lot.”

Libby sees the enjoyment in styles of play both old school and new wave.

“It’s a hard question,” he said. “Part of me had fun when I played because it was three yards and a cloud of dust, the fun part was grinding it out,” he said. “But I think this generation lends itself to a more open offensive scheme where more kids are touching the ball. It definitely doesn’t hurt.

“This is the way the game is going, and I wouldn’t do anything different.”

Skowhegan’s passing game has been prolific lately, amassing more than 400 yards through the air in three of its last four games.

Christopher threw for 450 yards and five TDs in a 57-42 loss to Messalonskee, 472 yards and seven touchdowns in a 48-29 win at Brunswick and 432 yards and eight touchdowns last Friday during a 56-54 overtime loss at Biddeford.

The Indians have averaged 47.7 points over their last four games, which also included a 47-6 victory over Hampden Academy in which Christopher threw just eight passes before sitting out the final 2½ quarters.

“Offensively we’re firing on all cylinders,” said Libby. “We’ve got a very talented group of receivers and a quarterback who stepped into some big shoes but is doing an awesome job.”

Christopher, who has passed for more than 1,600 yards and 22 touchdowns with just three interceptions — all in a Week 1 loss to undefeated Marshwood of South Berwick — was an understudy to McSweeney during his first two years at Skowhegan.

But with McSweeney’s departure Christopher’s time arrived, and since the rough debut at Marshwood the Indians’ passing game has flourished.

“I learned a lot from Garrett, and we have some really athletic receivers and our line’s done a great job blocking,” said Christopher. “I just get the ball out to the receivers and they make plays.”

Skowhegan’s receiving corps features senior wideouts Cam Barnes and Jon Bell, senior slot receiver Sean Savage and junior slot Colby Miller.

“Our two outside receivers are really fast and able to make plays in space,” said Christopher, “and our slot guys are able to get open and make big plays when we need them.”

Skowhegan passes the ball approximately 45 times per game, Libby said, double the number of times the Indians run the ball.

“Our run game is to throw screen passes to the outside and let them go,” he said. “Then if we get the defense to come up or get some runs going with our running backs we’ll go over the top because we have the speed to do that.”

One vital area of improvement has come along the line of scrimmage, where senior Travis Clement and juniors Jake Swenson, Kobe Houghton, Jamal Dourant and Connor Fennell have emerged as a more cohesive unit as they’ve gained experience working together.

“At the beginning of the season we weren’t really sure what we were coming in with there,” said Christopher, “but they’ve worked their butts off and have gotten a lot better. I have a lot of trust in them.”

Yet in a sporting world where defense supposedly wins championships, what remains to be seen is whether a pass-oriented team like Skowhegan can score its way to a Pine Tree Conference title.

There is precedent in another central Maine team, Cony of Augusta, which used an aerial attack featuring quarterback Ben Lucas to win the 2013 Class B state championship.

But defense has been an issue in Skowhegan, which has yielded 36 points per game overall during its 3-3 start but 56 points per game in its losses to Marshwood, Messalonskee and Biddeford — programs with a combined 12-4 record.

“We saw slight improvement last week defensively and we’re not going to stop trying,” said Libby, whose team hosts 4-2 Lawrence of Fairfield on Friday night in a key battle for Class B North playoff positioning. “If it can ever line up defensively for us and we can do the job for a whole game, we can score enough points.”

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