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All that glitters

Knights shine in 41-21 thumping of St. Joe’s in AA playoff opener

Posted: November 12, 2018 3:00 p.m.
Updated: November 13, 2018 1:00 a.m.
Tom Didato/C-I

NORTH CENTRAL’S D’MITRI ROBINSON (5) gets past St. Joseph’s defensive end Alec Miller after making a catch in the first half of Friday’s AA Upper State playoff game in Boonetown.

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It was hard not to notice the Super Bowl ring which Tyronne Drakeford sported on his finger as the second-year North Central head coach led his team onto the field for Friday’s first round AA Upper State playoff game with visiting St. Joseph’s. A few hours later, the only thing gleaming brighter than Drakeford’s bling was the ear-to-ear smile on his face.

Thanks to a balanced offense and a defense which all but shut down the visitors’ flexbone offensive scheme, the host Knights snapped a 20-year state playoff drought with a 41-21 win over the visiting Knights from Greenville to advance to Friday’s second round pairing at top-ranked Abbeville. The Panthers disposed of Andrew Jackson, 54-13, on Thursday.

Drakeford was a rookie cornerback who helped the San Francisco 49ers win Super Bowl XXIX in 1995. He rarely sports his ring from that season, saving it for special occasions. Friday was one such event.

“I wanted the kids to see what it’s all about when you win something,” Drakeford said following the program’s first postseason victory since knocking off Landrum in round one of the 1998 class A playoffs. “Hopefully, it would inspire them to do this. We have a long way to go but, they have to have some kind of vision. (The ring) was all part of that.”

NC (8-3) used a 14-for-17 passing performance from junior quarterback Austin Bowers, who threw for 223 yards and three touchdowns without turning the ball over to direct an offense which had 368 yards on 43 snaps. Freshman Seantrell Davis-Warren led the ground game with 125 yards on seven carries with a pair of four quarter scoring runs.

Earlier this season, Drakeford said a key to his team’s offense was getting Bowers comfortable and off to a quick start with his reads on passes. In a first half in which NC carried a 13-7 lead into halftime, the 5-foot-7, 170-pounder was 4-for-5 passing for 116 yards including a 90-yard touchdown strike to Markell Portee. Bowers hardly slowed down in the second 24 minutes with two more scoring strikes to help the Knights pull away from their Upstate guests.

“Austin stayed within himself. That’s what we want him to do,” Drakeford said following a game which was played in a dense fog and a lingering mist. “We don’t Austin to try and do too much. We want him to stay within himself, do what we have planned and let the game come to him. That’s what he did.”

St. Joe’s, a team which relies almost singularly on the ground game, set out trying to establish the run on the night’s opening possession. Running the flexbone, SJ’s marched from their own 35 to the NC 41 after five straight running plays. A 17-yard carry from 220-pound fullback Rashad Luckey proved too much for Drakeford to take as he called a quick time out and joined defensive coordinator Ryan McDonell on the field to make on-the-fly adjustments to a unit which forced an incompletion on fourth and seven from the NC 25 to stunt the SJ threat.

After a four-yard carry from Jamel Jones on its first snap, NC went back to Jones on the second play with the senior breaking a tackle along the line of scrimmage before breaking to his left while leaving a set of defenders in his wake en route to a 71-yard scoring jaunt. Tyler Slayton then drilled the PAT kick and with 6:511 showing on the first quarter clock, the host Knights had jumped out to a quick 7-0 lead.

Having had a look at the SJ offense, the NC defense forced a 28-yard Josh Masters punt which was downed at the Knights’ 10.

After Bowers fielded a low snap and got back to the line of scrimmage on first down, he went up top on second. Looking to his right, Bowers spotted Portee with single coverage and sent a perfect strike to the 6-foot-2 wide out who raced past his defender and into the end zone with the 90-yard pitch, catch and run to up the lead to 13-0 with 95 ticks left in the first quarter clock in a game which was sporting the earmarks of becoming a lopsided affair.

Just when NC looked to have this one under control, a second Hunter Haven punt --- this a 47-yarder --- set SJ up at its own 21 with 5:21 left in the first half.

Four running plays had the visitors facing a second and eight from the 36. K.D. Boyd then took the pitch from quarterback Luke Bynum and went down the right sidelines for a touchdown which chopped the NC advantage to 13-7 with 2:31 left in a first half which ended with that same score.

North Central, thanks to its pair of long scoring plays, had 203 yards in offense on just 14 snaps while SJ had 167 of its 172 yards in first half offense coming courtesy of its ground game with Boyd having 64 on those on his late-half scoring run. Drakeford admitted the game felt more one-sided when he led his squad into the locker room at the break.

“It sure felt that way,” he said. “When you go into halftime leading by six, you still don’t know where you are. We wanted to be explosive. We wanted to start fast but, they were still hanging around. Anytime you play against a running team like they are, you know they are going to eat up clock when they have the ball.

“Our plan for the second half was to be patient, let our offense do what they needed to do and then, have our defense stop them.”

The Knights ran Drakeford’s plan to near perfection in a second 24 minutes which started with a 10-play, 56-yard NC scoring march which stunted St. Joes’ momentum.

Bowers started getting comfortable ourt of the break, throwing to Hunter Haven, hitting the senior wide out with a nine-yard and then a 12-yard pass; both good for first downs with the second at the SJ. 28. After a holding call set the ball back at the 26, NC faced a second and 22 from the 26. Bowers then found Portee for a gain of 12 to the 14. On third and 10 from that spot, Bowers zipped a pass to Portee, who was double-covered. Portee pulled the ball in at the four, then made a jab step and get got to the end zone with his 13th touchdown catch of the season. Slayton tacked on the kick to hike the NC lead to 20-7 with 7:08 left in the third quarter.

A three and out resulted in another SJ punt which Avante’ Reynolds fielded at his own 35 and returned to the 47 as the hosts went to work from there on what would be the put-away score.

An 11-yard Davis-Warren run on first down was followed by the freshman bowling over would-be tacklers for a gain of 20 to the SJ 22 on the next play.  After a holding call, on first and goal from the 22, Bowers hooked up with Haven for 14 yards at the eight. On the next snap, the same combo hooked up with Haven running an out route and Haven extended the football over the goal line for the score and a 28-7 NC lead after Bowers carried in the two-point conversion with 1:45 to play in the third quarter.

Shyheem Shropshire’s interception of a Bynum aerial on the next SJ play from scrimmage set the hosts at their own 43. From there, it turned into Davis-Warren time.

A nine-yard Bowers to Haven pass set up a third and one from the SJ 35. Davis-Warren then took a handoff and headed left. He trucked a defensive back at the 20 and barreled into the end zone as the Knights hiked their lead to 35-7 just 61 seconds into the final stanza.

The scoring run put Davis-Warren’s bruising running style on full display for a 5-foot-6 back who runs with aggression each time he touches the ball and who had 116 yards rushing in the second half on five carries.

“Seantrell Davis-Warren is a great back. His future is bright,” Drakeford said. “Everybody played well but, he’s a special kid.”

NC’s lone turnover of the evening, an interception which was grabbed by SJ cornerback Jadin Nassif at his own 21, led to the first of two Mark Lyons touchdown which was set up by Boyd recovering a Luckey fumble at his own 29 and scoring only to have a block in the back penalty negate the score as SJ’s regained possession at the NC 35. On third and goal from the three, Lyons burst through the line for the touchdown to trim the deficit to 35-14 with 4:35 left in the game,

Davis-Warren and Lyons then traded touchdowns with Davis-Warren breaking through two sets of tackles on his way to a 30-yard scoring with 2:39 left in the game while Lyons followed up a 49-yard Boyd run by going in from 14 yards away for a window-dressing score to make it 41-21 with 66 seconds left to play.

“We kind of kept grinding. We just wanted to be sure that we were able to, at least, get some positive yards. As long as we did that, I thought we were going to be OK,” Drakeford said of his offense.

“We had to make adjustments at halftime. We were trying to run the ball inside and they were pinching hard so, it was hard to get that done. So, we started to go outside on them.”

A trip to defending state champion Abbeville (11-0) is next on the Knights’ agenda. While that is a challenge which Drakeford and his squad welcome, on this Friday night, it was all about the Knights and putting two decades of playoff futility to bed.

“It feels really, really good,” Drakeford said with a smile after the win. “Our kids worked really hard. Our coaches put in a lot of work and our community supported us. They deserve this. I’m just happy to be a part of it.”

Knight Lights: Bowers was 11-for-12 passing for 107 yards and two touchdown tosses in the second half ... Davis-Warren took three snaps from center in the wildcat set while Tyler Faulkenberry returned from injury/shoulder surgery to see time behind center in the second half ... While Davis-Warren led the Knights in rushing, Jones was next with seven carries for 86 yards with a touchdown ... Portee had five catches for 138 yards and two touchdowns. Haven had seven grabs for 70 yards and a touchdown ... NC had 14 first downs to 111 for St. Joe’s ... Boyd led all ball carriers with 166 yards from eight carries in a losing effort ... Bynum completed just one of his eight pass attempts for five yards while throwing an interception ... NC averaged 8.6 yards on 43 plays while the guests averaged 6.1 yards from 50 snaps ... The eight wins for North Central this season is the most for the program since winning nine games in 1994 under head coach Carl Startsman.

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