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Newcomers lead St. Joe's to victory over defending state champs

It’s just one game but it’s pretty hard not to overreact to the end results.

It is football, and everything is magnified in the sport.

Sprinkle in a Kelly, the name area football fans are very familiar with, along with a former NFL player turned coach and a reigning state champion and it’s hard to keep a level head.

That’s what St. Joe’s will try to do. It doesn’t change the fact that on Friday night the debuts of quarterback Casey Kelly, sophomore classmate and running back Jaden Lofton and head coach Derek Landri proved to be a smashing success as the Marauders cruised past defending state Class A champion South Park, 29-12, in a nonleague, season-opening clash for both teams Friday night.

An estimated 2,000 filled All High Stadium wondering what the Sparks could do for an encore after becoming the first Buffalo Public Schools football program to win a state title and see what St. Joe’s had in its cupboard.

The Sparks may have potential but didn't have it on this night, while the fans saw that this Kelly kid is pretty good.

Kelly, the little brother of Ole Miss quarterback Chad and nephew of Bills legend Jim, completed his first three passes, eight of his first 10, and finished 15 for 22 for 129 yards with an interception. He also rushed for 55 yards and the game’s first touchdown, a 4-yard keeper, and passed and ran for two-point conversions.

“I’m just comfortable with my teammates,” said Kelly, who directed scoring drives of 95, 16 and 84 yards in staking the Marauders to a 22-0 lead. “It’s just a great feeling to be out there with them. I accepted that role and tried to play to the best of my abilities and do what’s best for the team.”

“I was really impressed with Kelly,” South Park coach Tim Delaney said. “He was good. He’s got a bright future.”

One of Kelly’s best highlights was a 25-yard pass play to senior Naseer Jackson in which Kelly withstood the pressure and released the pass into the flat just as he was being drilled by a defender. Another highlight: Kelly avoided a sack by dragging a defender draped on his leg outside the tackle box and throwing an incomplete pass before another Spark could finish him off, avoiding a loss.

The ultimate one for the moment: the first touchdown with 7 minutes, 24 seconds left in the second quarter that broke a scoreless tie.

“My first varsity touchdown felt amazing,” Kelly said. “My center Cam Dabill led the way (to the end zone).”

Kelly did get picked off late in the first half as South Park’s Jakari Woods jumped a route. But a St. Joe’s defense – which yielded only 216 yards, recorded four turnovers and seven sacks – made a takeaway two plays later.

The Marauders defense life very difficult for the Sparks from the game’s first offensive drive when they forced a three and out after a fumbled kick return gave South Park possession at their 25. South Park failed to convert 10 third- and three fourth-down plays into first downs. Mike Motley led the winners with eight tackles and two sacks, while Nick Julian added seven and two. Aside for two big gains on the final drive with the outcome sealed, St. Joe’s would’ve kept South Park under 200 yards.

“We definitely have a lot of potential but we were sloppy,” said Delaney, who had to shuffle the line after losing first team All-WNY tackle Jeremiah Sanders to Timon via transfer earlier this week. “You can’t make mistakes against a good football team. … We had five illegal procedure penalties in the first half and those are things you just can’t do. We got it down to the red zone three times when we didn’t score and that just doesn’t cut it.”

“You can write about everybody on this defense because they played unbelievable,” said Landri, who is just the fourth head coach at St. Joe’s since 1960. “I liked the intensity of our players. We challenged them as a coaching staff man to man and they answered it.”

Naseer Jackson played superb on both sides of the ball, finishing with 129 yards rushing and receiving and a touchdown and five tackles.

Mix in Lofton’s touchdown runs of 8 and 24 yards, along with 90 yards on nine carries and it’s pretty easy to see why the Marauders made Landri’s debut a triumphant one and why there is reason to feel good heading into next Saturday’s home opener against Monsignor Farrell of Staten Island.

“For our first game, they came out and played hard and did what we asked them to do but we still have a lot of work to do,” Landri said.

That includes Kelly, but he sure did leave a nice first impression Friday.

“Being able to play football at St. Joe’s is awesome,” Kelly said. “We worked the hardest we could ever work during the offseason. Our defense that was amazing. I’m speechless for our defense.”

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