Lackawanna beat the heat and then secured one of its bigger regular-season wins in quite some time.
And even though it's still September, the Steelers look like they could be a contender in the always tough but unpredictable B classification of the Section VI Football Federation.
The Steelers boldly made that announcement Saturday afternoon at their old Veterans Stadium home by not only surviving but thriving in sweltering conditions, as they defeated Alden, 24-7, in a showdown between ranked Buffalo News small schools.
Khalil Horton and London Smith each scored two touchdowns for No. 10 Lackawanna. Noble Smith calmly directed three scoring drives – including a huge momentum-changing two-minute drill late in the second quarter – against the sixth-ranked school. A defense led by lightning-quick defensive end Jakwon Ingram (seven tackles, five for losses) forced three turnovers and grounded the Bulldogs' offense as the Steelers took this early-season battle between unbeatens and find themselves alone in first place in the B-3 Division.
It's the first time Lackawanna has defeated Alden since 2009 – a year after the Steelers' last Section VI championship season. It also capped a weekend in which No. 4 Medina lost to fellow B-3 foe Newfane.
"This team is special," said Noble Smith, who completed 10 of 15 passes for 85 yards, a touchdown and an interception.
"I think this is what our kids needed in order to grow and be a good football team," said Lackawanna coach Adam Tardif. "Alden's a good football team. They have a good quarterback, tailback, fullback ... an outstanding receiver. We talked about this being a statement game because we have to put ourselves in the hunt. Class B is loaded with great teams this year. We definitely said Lackawanna can play football."
Tardif's crew made it known its defense was up for the challenge against an Alden offense that came in averaging 43.5 points. London Smith picked off the Bulldogs' first pass attempt at the Steelers' 17 and Lackawanna held the Bulldogs to 256 total yards, including 116 in the second half.
London Smith's pick led to an 11-play drive that Horton capped with a 4-yard touchdown run with about 4 minutes left in the quarter.
In addition to tough running from Horton (26 yards on six rushes), Noble Smith took to the air against Alden's eight-in-the-box front during the drive – finding his twin brother, London, for first-down gains of 8 and 13 yards.
The Steelers, who usually prefer running, went vertical quite often in the first half – 13 times, with Smith completing 10 of them.
Offensive coordinator Marcus Rivers "is just going to take what the defense is giving us," Tardif said. "London made some big catches. Everybody contributed."
Bryan Cybulski set up Alden's scoring drive in the second quarter by picking off Smith in the end zone. On the possession that ended with a 1-yard Cybulski scoring run, he completed a fourth-and-14 to Christian Snell for 15 yards and also gained 8 yards on fourth-and-1 two plays before his score with 2:20 to play in the half.
The Steelers responded with a 12-play drive in which Noble Smith completed six passes and also rushed 10 yards for a key first down. The latter was a slightly risky call since the play came with no timeouts and perhaps 20 seconds at most left (the scoreboard clock didn't work so officials kept time on the field). A spike was followed by Noble's 5-yard TD pass to London in the end zone.
"It was huge," Noble Smith said. "I had to bounce back (from the interception). I had to make sure we had a comfortable lead going into the second half, not be in a hole."
Horton, who rushed 13 times for 63 yards, increased the lead with a 3-yard touchdown run with just under six minutes left in the third quarter. After forcing a three-and-out, London Smith (four catches, 37 yards) then returned a punt 69 yards for the TD with 55 seconds left in the quarter.
"I saw it in the air. ... I just attacked it, followed my block," London said. "I just wanted to make a play. I thought about scoring the whole time. I didn't think about being tackled."
The only negative on this day for Lackawanna wound up being a late illegal hit penalty – not intentional – on London Smith against Cybulski, who dove head first for extra yardage at the end of a 43-yard run. Both players took to the air and collided. While Cybulski was down, coach Rob Curran said he was conscious and that he had difficulty breathing because he hurt his ribs on the play.
"I thought for sure he was going to be unconscious when I got there," Curran said. "I was thinking the worst when he was hit."
Lackawanna will learn shortly whether Smith will be available for Friday's game at Medina. Intentional targeting comes with an ejection and game disqualification.
For now, the Steelers will just enjoy the win over a good team, enjoy being in first place.
"We're taking it a week at a time but this team is special," Noble Smith said. "We're just trying to keep it going."