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Cardinal Ritter finds extra gear to beat Kennett, reach Class 3 semifinals

Cardinal Ritter finds extra gear to beat Kennett, reach Class 3 semifinals

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Cardinal Ritter vs. Kennett football

Luther Burden of Cardinal Ritter reaches out to stiff arm a Kennett defender in the Class 3 quarterfinal football game on Saturday November 21, 2020 at Cardinal Ritter College Prep in St. Louis, Missouri. Paul Baillargeon, STLhighschoolsports.com

After first-half possessions that included a three-and-out, a turnover on downs and 40 yards in penalties, Cardinal Ritter junior Luther Burden thought the offense needed a spark.

“If the game was going to open up, it was going to be because of me," Burden said. "I had to make some plays to get us going."

Burden accepted a pair of wide receiver screen passes and turned them into electric 67- and 54-yard touchdowns Saturday, breaking open a six-point halftime advantage and propelling Cardinal Ritter to a 45-7 victory over Kennett in a Class 3 quarterfinal.

Cardinal Ritter (4-3) gets to stay home for a Class 3 semifinal against Blair Oaks (11-1) scheduled for 1 p.m. Nov. 28. 

Fearing the deep pass, the Kennett cornerbacks decided to give Burden space at the line of scrimmage and the University of Oklahoma commit made that strategy backfire, hauling in seven passes for 241 yards and three touchdowns.

That was part of a 440-yard, seven-touchdown performance by Lions senior quarterback TJ Atkins.

“Everyone knows how dynamic (Burden) is, so they play him seven or eight yards off the line of scrimmage," Cardinal Ritter coach Brennan Spain said, "but what they don’t know is that he has a lot of creativity in space.” 

That creativity was evident on the opening possession of the game when Burden took a quick screen from Atkins on third-and-5, avoided tacklers and scampered 15 yards. It set up an Atkins to Keavion Long 24-yard touchdown connection to put the Lions ahead 7-0 less than two minutes into the contest.

Atkins continued to find the quick screen game to his liking, again hitting Burden for a 37-yard catch, but midway through the second quarter, he also began to pierce the Kennett defense downfield. He found Long for a 17-yard hookup on fourth-and-14 to extend a drive and then launched a bomb down the right sideline to Burden for a 40-yard touchdown, giving Cardinal Ritter a 13-0 lead.

The big play was an audible Atkins and Burden made at the line of scrimmage after Burden had been finding success on screens and short routes.

“That was a hitch and go," Burden said. "We checked out of (the original play) and I knew the corner was going to bite.” 

But Kennett (11-1), which had scored at least 41 points in every game, mounted its best drive to close the first half. Aided by two personal foul penalties, including one that returned the ball to the Indians after they had punted, senior quarterback Bodey Ellis began to march the offense down the field.

Using lead draws and quarterback scrambles, Ellis gained 45 yards rushing in the first half and moved Kennett into the red zone. He found Tanner Duncan for a first down on fourth-and-6 and then handed to Jordan Jarett for a 6-yard score to close the deficit to 13-7 at halftime.

It was an unusual spot for Cardinal Ritter, which had won its previous three playoff games by at least 40 points.

“The last past couple of weeks, we were able to jump out on teams and sustain the momentum, but (Kennett) showed why they were undefeated," Spain said. "They made some good stops."

But Kennett could not stop Burden.

Midway through the third quarter, Burden took a quick screen, made the first defender miss and raced through the secondary for a 67-yard score.

Burden opened the fourth quarter with a screen-and-score from 54 yards that included a stiff arm and a cut in traffic that left defenders grasping at air.

“The big plays got to us," Kennett coach Joel Wyatt said. "We couldn’t handle the smoke screens out there to Burden, which is disappointing because we had game-planned to really defeat that play and they hurt us all night with it.” 

The explosive plays allowed the Lions defense to go on the attack.

Cardinal Ritter put a fifth defensive lineman with a hand in the dirt, played man to man in the secondary and brought the pressure, resulting in a smothering performance that limited Kennett to 44 yards in the second half.

“Once we switched to a five-man front, they couldn’t run the ball downhill on us, so they had to pass and that plays to our strength,” senior safety Nyjahl Vaughn said.

And the strength of the offense has been the consistent play of first-year quarterback Atkins, who threw three more touchdown passes in the fourth quarter, two to freshman Fredrick Moore.

Atkins, who switched from wide receiver to quarterback this season, has become more comfortable with every snap.

“Playing receiver helped me read the defense by seeing where they were lining up and it has helped me at quarterback. It was hard at first, but it has come along,” Atkins said.

Burden added, “He is getting better at reading the defense, who to go to and when the ball should be gone. We’re anxious to go get (a state title) this year.”

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