STRUTHERS - There's something about the Smith family when playing against the Struthers Wildcats.
Seven years after brother Lance torched Struthers for more than 400 rushing yards, De'Veon Smith blew up for four touchdowns and more than 100 yards on the ground in the second half alone to lead Howland to a 35-21 victory Friday night that clinched Howland's sixth consecutive conference crown.
"I'm sure (De'Veon) had 400 yards tonight - it wasn't all on the ground," Howland coach Dick Angle said. "I told him with about a minute to go (in the game), 'You know, you didn't break your brother's record of 400 yards rushing, but you put on a more dynamic performance then he ever did that night.' "
Tribune Chronicle / Dave Dermer
Howland receiver Chris Maze (7) runs in the open field after making a catch and avoiding Struthers’ defenders.
Smith finished with 149 yards rushing on the night.
To start the second half, the Tigers were looking for an answer. One minute into the third quarter, Stuthers' David Stewart ran in a 61-yard touchdown, giving the Wildcats (6-4, 3-3 All-American Conference, American Division) a 14-7 lead.
The Tigers (8-2, 5-1 AAC, American Division) got their answer on the next play.
Smith picked up a short kickoff and returned it 78 yards to the house, and after a defensive stop, Smith showed his prowess once again on special teams, returning a punt 73 yards for a score.
Because of the two special teams touchdowns, it took Howland until the 4:33 mark in the third quarter before the offense stepped onto the field - with a seven-point lead in hand.
"We said last Monday, it was going to come down to special teams," Struthers coach Curt Kuntz said. "We didn't execute as well as we needed to."
Smith didn't stop with just the special teams - he ripped through the Wildcat defense.
After gaining only 48 yards on the ground in the first half, Smith compiled over 100 yards in the second half, adding two more touchdowns with 8:13 and 3:02 remaining in the fourth quarter to put the game away.
"(Smith's) a difference maker," Angle said. "Our league is a well-balanced league. Everybody's at about the same peak, except we've got the king. He's the real deal."
Until Smith's explosive second half, the game looked as though it would be a showdown of two of the best running backs in the area.
Smith and Stewart went head-to-head in the first half and were level. Smith averaged five yards a carry, while Stewart powered his way through the Tiger defense for 65 yards.
But the Wildcats went away from the run halfway through the third quarter, with Stewart carrying the ball only four times after Smith's punt return for a touchdown. The offense didn't find its rhythm until the end of the game.
"They made some good adjustments and shut down what we were trying to do," Kuntz said. "We didn't execute on some of the checks like we needed to."
Along with giving them a conference championship, the win also clinched a playoff spot for the Tigers. Ranked eighth in Division II, Region 5, Howland needed the win to ensure that the team would play another week.
"We definitely wanted to take it to (the Wildcats)," Smith said. "We wanted to get that spot in the playoffs and win that championship outright."