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Knights run into dead end

Buford wins Region 4-AA crown by shutting out NC, 21-0

Posted: October 29, 2018 1:27 p.m.
Updated: October 30, 2018 1:00 a.m.
Tom Didato/C-I

NORTH CENTRAL QUARTERBACK Austin Bowers stretches for extra yardage while being pulled down by Buford’s Tyler Griffin in action from Thursday’s Region 4-AA championship game.

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BUFORD --- Earlier last week, as the offensive and defensive statistics from his team and those of Buford --- since entering Region 4-AA play --- were read to him, North Central head coach Tyronne Drakeford said he was hoping Thursday’s conference title game turned into to a defensive battle.

For better or for worse, Drakeford was right.

In a game featuring a pair of offenses which averaged scoring better than 38 points per league game and both defensive units surrendering 19 or less points in those outings, the host Yellow Jackets pitched a shutout in winning the 4-AA crown with a 231-0 victory over the Knights.

The loss snapped a five-game win streak for NC (7-3) which will be at home to host St. Joseph’s, the fourth-place entry out of Region 1, in a first round AA state playoff game on Friday, Nov. 9. Buford (7-3) won its seventh straight game and will host C.A. Johnson in its first round postseason contest.

In a pairing in which defense ruled this chilly night, neither side broke into double figures in first downs. The Knights finished with 170 yards in offense on 58 snaps while the host Yellow Jackets had 191 yards on 51 plays.

The difference in the game? An acrobatic 44-yard Brayden Phillips to Dwayne Bufford touchdown pass on the fourth play from scrimmage, a 38-yard, second quarter interception return to the one which led to a two-play drive and a 41-yard pick six in the fourth quarter; all for the Jackets.

“It was unfortunate that we gave up that big play early,” said Drakeford of the scoring pass on the game’s first series. “I figured they would come out with a lot of momentum tonight. 

“That play occurred after what I’d been saying all week; after we were coming off the field after third down but (the defense) had to go back out after a penalty. You just can’t do that against good teams. Ultimately, though, you have to score points.”

Drakeford spent the rain-shortened week of practice preaching to his team about eliminating penalties. Their first of six on the night proved costly.

With Buford facing a third and four from the NC 49, the Knights jumped giving the hosts a new set of downs from the 44. After a Phillips incompletion, the 6-foot-2 junior sent a high-arching pass in Bufford’s direction. The pass bounded off Bufford’s hands and into the air near the five yard line. The senior wide out stayed with it and grabbed the ball from the air and went in for the game’s first, and winning,  score just 90 seconds into the contest.

The Knights never recovered from the quick strike.

The NC defense made amends for that on Buford’s second possession in which the Jackets marched from their own 30 to the NC 28 only for the Knights’ defense to get off the field with a hold on an incomplete pass on fourth and inches from their own 28.

After two three and outs, the NC offense began to make headway with starting quarterback Avante’ Reynolds zipping a 19-yard pass Esteban Rodriguez for a first down at midfield. The drive would stall when a quarterback sack on third and six pushed the Knights back to midfield which brought out the punt team.

“That’s been our Achilles Heel in our three losses this year,” Drakeford said. “When we play against really good teams, we have to find ways to score. We just haven’t been able to do that. We had opportunities tonight but, we find a way to either lose yards or, get a penalty … whatever the case may be. We just can’t seem to be able to get it into the end zone when we’re playing against good teams.”

The Knights defense repelled another Buford threat as the Jackets used a 23-yard Phillips-to-Bufford pass for a first down at the NC 12. On fourth and four from the six, Phillips lost two yards on a keeper as the guests took over on downs but, again, were deep in their own end of the field with a little more than seven minutes to play in the first half.

The Buford defense came up with its first big play of the night when Tyler Griffin picked off an NC pass at the Knights’ 38 and returned it to the one. Two snaps later, Griffin did the scoring honors by going in from inside the one for a 14-0 lead with 4:38 before intermission.

The Knights’ best scoring chance of the game came after stacking up BHS inside the Jackets’ five and forcing a punt on the second series of the second half. Reynolds fielded the kick of his own 38 and returned it seven yards as the Knights’ offense looked to be in business in starting the series from the Yellow Jackets’ 31.

With Jamel Jones behind center in the wildcat formation, the senior carried three times to set up a fourth and five from the 26. An incompletion on a fourth down pass to the end zone returned the ball to Buford with 3:45 left in the third quarter.

Still, only trailing by a pair of touchdowns, the Knights’ defense came up with a big play early in the fourth quarter when Hunter Haven recovered a Phillips fumble at the Knights’ 44.

Austin Bowers, the second of three NC signal-callers used on this night, found Reynolds with a 28-yard first down strike on a catch in which the senior managed to get one foot inbounds at the BHS 28. A 13-yard Kalab Haven carry to the 13 was good for another first down. On third and a pair from the five, Jones went for two yards for a first and goal at the three.

An unsportsmanlike conduct call against the Knights after a second down play backed them up to the 23. On third down, Bowers went up top and found Markell Portee only for the 6-foot-2 senior to be ruled out of bounds as it was determined that he came down with the catch with one foot out of the end zone. One play later, a pass in the middle of the end zone was batted down by the Buford defense.

Portee, who came into the game as NC’s leading receiver and scorer with 12 touchdowns on the season, was hounded by the Yellow Jacket defense. He was limited to just three targets and did not have a catch as Buford took away the Knights’ chief threat in a passing game which netted 74 yards as the three quarterback combined to complete 11 of their 28 throws.

“That’s our fault as coaches,” Drakeford said of net being able to integrate Portee into the offense. “With the type of season that he’s having, we have to know that he is going to attract double-coverage. We have to find ways to either move him around on the field so that he can get the ball or, other guys need to step up. It just didn’t happen tonight.”

With the NC defense getting a quick three and out after the near miss and returning the ball to its offense, the Buford defense put the frosting on the cake when Justin Hayden stepped in front of an NC pass at the Knights 41 and sprinted into the end zone to make it 21-0 with 4:43 left in the game.

While the Knights’ offense was unable to get much traction against the Yellow Jackets, the hosts only scored once on offense and were 0-for-three on fourth down and only two of 11 on third down conversions against a salty NC defensive unit.

“That’s been our strong point all year. Our defense has been the cornerstone for our team,” Drakeford said. “One thing that I’ve preached all week to our guys is that we had to win the turnover battle and, if we lose that, which we did tonight because we had two crucial turnovers which we could not bounce back from.”

Since this game was moved up one night due to what turned out to be miserable weather on Friday, plus having this week off as some teams in the Lower State still have makeup games to be played in the wake of Hurricane Florence last month, the Knights have 15 days between games.

Drakeford said his team will make the best of their extended break which, he said, will allow the NC staff to make corrections to areas which need to be fixed.

“It’s very important that we have this bye week,” Drakeford said. “Our kids are dejected and our coaches are not feeling good. This gives us a chance to regroup, find out who we are going to play in the first round (of the playoffs) and start a new season. We just can’t let this linger on.”

Knight Lights: Kalab Haven led the Knights with 41 yards rushing on four carries. NC, as a team, had 30 carries for 65 yards … Bowers completed seven of his 21 pass attempts for 74 yards while Reynolds was four of six for 31 in the air … Reynolds also led the Knights in receiving as he caught four passes for 45 yards … The NC offense had nine first downs and converted on five of 16 third down plays and were 0-for-4 on fourth down … Buford ran the ball 34 times and gained 103 yards while Phillips was six for 17 passing for 88 of his team’s 191 yards in offense … The Jackets had just eight first downs and only three in the second half … The Knights were flagged six times for 65 yards while BHS had 14 infractions for 123 yards being walked off … The Knights were trying for their first region championship in football since 1992 … Among those in attendance on Thursday were coaches from Newberry College and Charleston Southern University.

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