Airline showed some flashes of a passing game it will need against three ranked opponents to close out the regular season.
But the No. 5 Vikings (7-0, 3-0 District 1-5A) left no doubt what part of their offense makes them a formidable challenge for just about anyone Friday night at Haughton (5-2, 1-2). Senior running back Shun’Cee Thomas turned in another huge performance behind his dominant offensive line as Airline steamrolled its way to a 37-21 win over the Buccaneers.
“When we needed it, the guys really stepped up,” Coach Bo Meeks said. “(Our) offensive line took over. Shun’Cee and Brian made some great runs, and (I’m) just proud of the effort.”
Thomas ran for 111 of his 179 yards in the second half, beginning with a 62-yard touchdown on his first carry. When running backs coach Bud Owens said they needed Thomas to eat up clock down the stretch, he responded with 22 yards on seven carries during the game-clinching drive, including a crucial fourth-down conversion.
Brian Fielding finished it off for his second touchdown of the game, this one not nearly as long as a 45-yard sprint to give Airline the lead for good late in the first quarter. The importance of the junior in keeping Thomas fresh with a viable backup option shouldn’t be underestimated.
“They wore us down up front,” Haughton coach Rodney Guin said after his team’s second consecutive loss, with two more ranked teams looming the next two weeks. “They’re so good on the offensive and defensive line. That was the only difference in the game.”
It’s nothing new for an Airline team that won its first six games by an average of more than five touchdowns. But this time, Haughton managed to keep it close with the help of Kei’Untre Normandin’s 94-yard kick return and a four-yard Airline punt to set up two touchdowns, the last of which came when Antonio Woodfork caught a six-yard pass to cut the lead to 27-21 early in the fourth quarter.
Meeks said special teams must be better going forward, although kicker Gabe Rodriquez certainly did his part by making all three field goal attempts, highlighted by a 42-yarder to end the first half. A balanced offense also remains a focus for the Vikings, even though Thomas’ reliable production and a strong defense means they haven’t needed it just yet.
“You really can’t beat an offense that’s equal in pass and run,” Thomas said. “Passing the ball great opened up the runs and running the ball great opened up the passing game.”
Quarterback Thomas McKain looked good at times and made some clutch plays, picking up a third down with his feet and another with his arm on the final touchdown drive. Six different Vikings caught passes, but McKain still finished 9-of-17 for just 91 yards and didn’t have much success throwing downfield.
Meeks said he’s always known Airline’s offense would need to show more balance as its schedule got tougher, and it proved up to the challenge in its first real test of the season. But the production or at least a credible threat from McKain must become even greater over the next three weeks beginning next Friday at Evangel, the only other unbeaten in District 1-5A play.