ANNA — Anna’s defense still has plenty to work on after giving up several big plays after initial contact in a home opener against Brookville on Friday.
But the defense accounted for four turnovers — including two that were returned for touchdowns in the first two minutes of the second half — which helped the Rockets secure a 48-27 nonconference win over the Blue Devils.
“Those were big for us,” Anna coach Nick Marino said. “They sprung the game open and gave us a little bit of momentum there when we needed it.”
Anna (1-1) led 27-13 at halftime and increased its lead 58 seconds into the third quarter. After two Brookville plays, Anna junior defensive back and first-year starter Brandon Shannon picked up a fumble near the home sideline and returned it 32 yards for a touchdown.
Then 58 seconds later, Wil Luthman intercepted a pass and returned it 33 yards for a touchdown to boost the Rockets’ lead to 41-13 with 10:04 left in the third.
“Our confidence was here, but then it was out of the roof,” Anna junior receiver/linebacker Jeffrey Richards said. “We knew the game was over. We were just so hyped.”
Brookville senior quarterback Mason Stout threw a 10-yard touchdown pass to Daniel Dominique with 4:48 left in the third quarter to cut Anna’s lead to 21, but Richards came up with a big play a little later to help the Rockets secure the win.
Anna junior quarterback Bart Bixler threw a 15-yard touchdown pass to Richards with 1:14 left in the third to boost Anna’s lead to 48-20. Richards was covered tightly but caught the ball while falling down.
“I just keep my eyes on the ball, and if I went up, obviously he would swat it out, so I just went under him,” Richards said. “It’s just how it works.”
Stout ran for a 19-yard touchdown with 11:58 left in the fourth quarter, and the Blue Devils then forced Anna to punt, which was the first of the game.
Brookville (0-2) turned the ball over on downs on its next drive at Anna’s 47. The Rockets turned the ball over on downs on their next drive, but the teams played junior varsity players the rest of the game.
Anna racked up 350 yards of offense and had 21 first downs, but allowed Brookville to amass 303 yards and 21 first downs.
As happy as Marino was with the turnovers, he said the Rockets need to work on their defensive intensity before opening Midwest Athletic Conference play next Friday against New Bremen.
“We’re pleased with the win but not pleased with the performance necessarily with some aspects of the game,” Marino said. “… We’ve got to consistently tackle better and we’ve got to get to the ball better and everything else you see when you look at a good defense.”
With Bixler and junior running back Riley Huelskamp in the backfield, Anna moved the ball at a pace Brookville struggled to slow.
Bixler completed 7 of 13 passes for 78 yards and two touchdowns and led the team with 115 yards on 17 carries. Huelskamp ran for 109 yards and three touchdowns and also caught three passes for 34 yards with one TD.
“Those guys are doing a good job, and I thought our line blocked pretty well at times,” Marino said. “We had some pretty good holes at times.”
Aside from Richards’ touchdown catch, he accounted for one interception and one fumble recovery in the first half, both of which led to touchdown drives.
“It’s a big motivational boost for our whole team,” Richards said of the turnovers. “Everyone gets hyped when we get the ball back.”
Richards said the win was what the team needed after a tough road loss at Middletown Fenwick to begin the season.
“It feels pretty awesome, honestly,” Richards said. “Our whole team came together. We all worked so great.”
Huelskamp returned the game’s opening kickoff 49 yards. The Rockets gained six yards on the next three plays. But on a 4th-and-four, Bixler threw a screen pass to Huelskamp, who ran toward the home sideline, cut upfield and scored to give the Rockets a 7-0 lead with 9:42 left in the first.
The Blue Devils quickly responded. They took the ensuing kickoff to Anna’s 48-yard line and scored seven plays later on a 1-yard run by Ben Brophy with 6:45 left to cut Anna’s lead to 7-6 after a missed extra point.
Anna retook the lead with 3:25 left in the first on a 7-yard run by Huelskamp, but the extra point was deflected to limit Anna’s lead to 13-6.
Brookville drove into the red zone on its next drive, but Richards intercepted a pass in the end zone on a fourth down. The Rockets then drove 80 yards and scored on a 37-yard run by Huelskamp with 7:35 left to increase their lead to 20-6.
Richards recovered a fumble on Brookville’s 38 on the next drive. Huelskamp ran it in a few plays later on a 4-yard run with 4:35 left to push Anna’s lead to 27-6.
Stout threw an 11-yard touchdown pass to Braden Moore with 2:01 left in the second quarter to close the gap to 27-13.
Anna will next travel to New Bremen, which improved to 2-0 with a 48-8 win over Mississinawa Valley on Friday.
“Bremen’s a good ball team, so we’ve got to ready for next week for opening league play,” Marino said. “We’ve got to get some things fixed and get better.”
Anna took a 28-6 halftime lead over New Bremen last year, but the Cardinals held the Rockets scoreless in the second half and closed the final gap down to 28-20.
“We have to work on our pass defense, because they passed all over us last year,” Richards said. “We need to get our pass defense better and our defensive backs, and we’ll probably get the win.”
Reach Bryant Billing at 937-538-4818, or follow @SidneyOHSports on Twitter and @BryantBillingSDN on Facebook.