WINCHESTER — Millbrook quarterback Kaden Buza didn’t know it, but his jersey may have well as had a bull’s-eye on it Friday night.
Handley’s defense wanted to keep the pressure on Buza to prevent the talented Pioneers quarterback from having time to survey the field to find his talented receivers.
And for the final three quarters, the Judges were able to pull it off. Handley racked up five sacks and thanks to two long, time-consuming drives in the second half the Judges rallied for a 21-13 victory on Millbrook’s homecoming night.
Quarterback Malachi Imoh rushed 30 times for 270 yards and three scores as Handley (6-0, 3-0 Class 4 Northwestern District) defeated the Pioneers (5-2, 3-1) for the first time since 2014.
Buza was able to direct the Pioneers to a pair of scoring drives in the first quarter as they built a 13-7 lead, but Handley began to frustrate the Pioneers with blitzes, especially from linebacker Leland Walkling, who finished with 1.5 sacks.
“You cannot let him sit in the pocket,” Handley coach Dan Jones said of Buza, who threw a 73-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter. “Even when he scrambles he’s tough. We had to put pressure on him and our guys on defense worked together, 11 guys working together.”
“That was the main goal tonight because he’s such a good pocket passer,” added Walkling. “We had to apply pressure.”
The Judges needed to make big plays because Millbrook’s defense had blanketed the Handley receivers and had picked off Imoh three times.
Josecruz Teran grabbed the final interception early in the third quarter and his return set up the Pioneers at the Judges 28 with a chance to expand the 13-7 lead. Handley caught a break as Jordan Jackson’s 17-yard TD run was called back on a holding penalty. From there, the Judges held as Walkling pressured Buza into an incompletion on 4th-and-13 from the 20.
“I can’t say enough about our defense,” Jones said. “They’ve come through. They’ve made big plays. They always make that big play, get that turnover or get a big stop. That’s how big [that stop] was. We won the game because of it.”
“Anytime you make a stop like that, that’s somewhat of a momentum changer,” Millbrook coach Josh Haymore said.
Jones, who admitted he had been stubborn calling passing plays, turned to the run and his offensive line, Imoh and running back Noah Hendrickson delivered on a 12-play, 80-yard drive that ate up nearly the rest of the third quarter.
Imoh and Hendrickson carried on 11 of the 12 plays. Imoh’s 23-yard run gave the Judges first-and-goal at the 8. Millbrook’s defense stiffened, but on third down from the 10, Imoh scampered nine yards. On fourth down, he found a hole in the middle and scored with 16 seconds left in the period. Adam Pollak’s extra point gave the Judges a 14-13 lead.
“It’s pretty hard when you are a one-sided offense, but once we established that run game we knew we had the upper hand,” said Kobe Wolfinbarger, who along with Luke Foltz, Solomon Johnson, Noah Johnson and Joey Ashby make up the offensive line. “Once we started running it they got tired and we knew we had the run going.”
“The offensive line really pulled through tonight,” Jones said. “I made a mistake throwing a little more than I probably should have. They are the ones that won this game for us tonight.”
After the Judges forced a three-and-out, they went on another march that consumed most of the final quarter. Starting at its 24, Handley rushed its way to the Millbrook 17. After an illegal block and Teran dropping Imoh for a three-yard loss, Handley faced fourth-and-14 from the 21.
Imoh, who had completed as many passes to the Pioneers as he had to his own team at that point, then came up with a big strike, hitting Dayvon Newman over the middle that went for an 18-yard gain.
“That was perfect,” said Imoh, who was 5-of-14. “I just saw him flash across the middle. We had trips on that side and I put the ball where he needed it and he was able to make a move and get the first down for us. That was a big play.”
Two plays later, Imoh leaped over a pile at the goal line for a two-yard TD run that pushed the lead to 21-13 with 4:06 left.
Millbrook would get two chances over the final four minutes. Starting at their 40, the Pioneers netted just two yards on three plays and had to turn the ball over on downs.
Taking over at its 20 after a Judges punt, Buza connected for 40 yards on the first play to T.J. Spain down to the Handley 40.
But on the first play, the Judges’ pressure forced a holding penalty that turned out to be a 19-yard loss. After an eight-yard gain and an incomplete pass, Handley linebacker Quinton Newman got to Buza, who was called for intentional grounding.
Facing fourth-and-30, Buza was flushed from the pocket and ran for 19 yards, but the ball went over to the Judges.
Handley was able to keep the pressure on in the second half despite the loss of standout Stephen Daley, who had two sacks in the first half, but was injured early in the third quarter.
Walkling, blitzing straight up the middle, didn’t let Buza have long to look at his receivers.
“Originally, it was not the game plan,” Walkling said. “I was supposed to guard and play more in coverage. It ended up just happening based off of our checks and everything. It ended up working out and we stuck with it through the second half.”
“It was nothing that we haven’t faced before,” said Buza, who finished 13 of 24 for 220 yards. “They just brought a couple of extra men that we couldn’t pick up.”
“They brought more guys than we had blocking,” Haymore agreed. “They did a good job.”
Imoh got the scoring going with a bang on the Judges’ second possession. After the Pioneers downed a punt on the Handley 1, Imoh ran three yards. On his next carry he deeked inside, then found a hole to the right and showed off his sprinter’s speed in racing 96 yards up the right sideline.
“After they had punted the ball deep, I told our offensive line, ‘This is a chance for a big play.’ The first one I got stopped, but the second one I saw a hole. [wideout] Mason [Smith] blocked down on the corner really well and I saw a seam and I was able to hit it.”
“Imoh is a very good football player,” Haymore said. “He did some very good things tonight.”
Buza needed just four plays to get the Pioneers even. On third down, Buza rolled right to escape a pass rush and fired a downfield strike to Jackson, who broke a tackle inside the 10 for a 73-yard TD play.
Buza was 5-for-5 for 58 yards on the Pioneers’ next possession, which culminated with his four-yard keeper. The Pioneers missed the extra point and led 13-7 at that point.
In addition to Imoh, the Judges got a solid night from Hendrickson, who ran for 58 tough yards on 17 carries.
“Noah played so well,” Imoh said. “The offensive line was able to make a lot of holes for him and he was able to run so hard. That’s what he does so well — find the hole and hit the hole hard. He definitely wore down the defense a lot.”
Jones lauded the play of Nikqui Williams, who replaced the injured Daley on defense. “That just shows we have a great team,” Jones said. “They all know their roles and do what they need to do.”
Thanks to the five sacks, the Judges held the Pioneers 50 yards on 23 carries. Millbrook running back Gavin Evosirch, the area leader in scoring heading into the game, had 60 yards on 14 carries.
“I felt like they gave us a lot of defensive fronts which gave us some problems in the run game,” Haymore said. “We’re going to go against those in practice next week and get better.”
Spain and Aidan Haines also recorded interceptions for the Pioneers.
While Millbrook has a bye next week, the Judges will host Sherando (3-3, 1-2) on Saturday. Handley has not beaten the Warriors since 2010.
“It feels so good, but we have to go into each week humble and work and we have a big game against Sherando,” Imoh said of Friday’s win. “Us seniors, we haven’t beaten Sherando, either. It’s two big games back-to-back.”