Louis Clyburn had a good feeling as he led North Central back onto the field for the second half of Friday’s game with in-county rival Camden Military Academy. Across the way, his opposite number and CMA head coach Will Rice, was hoping against hope that his Spartans could finish the job.
In what was easily the closest game played between the two neighboring programs, the host Knights used a fourth quarter John Bowers-to-Hunter Wyant touchdown pass to overcome a 14-12 deficit and celebrate homecoming with a 20-14 win over the stubborn Spartans.
The victory gave the hosts a 2-2 record while CMA saw its record even out at 1-1.
With the Spartans carrying a 14-12 lead into intermission, both coaches had the same thing on their minds. For Clyburn, it was for his Knights to wear down their guests in the second 24 minutes and take control of the game. Rice, whose team has been on campus for just three weeks and whose starters played less than two full quarters in their first game a week earlier, had his fingers crossed that his players could hang on in the second half.
“We were tired the whole second half,” Rice said. “We showed some guts, though. That’s a good football team over there; they’ll line up and smack you in the mouth. There were times where they did that to us and, there were times when we held up.
“We’re going to get better though. We’ve only been practicing for three weeks but take nothing away from North Central. That’s an incredible football team. They have talent everywhere and Coach Clyburn does a great job here. My hat’s off to them.”
Having beaten CMA by 34 and 27 points the past two seasons, respectively, Clyburn said this Spartan squad was the best his team had faced in the short three-year history of the series. The visitors proved that on this night which was played with the threat of rain which never materialized save for a scant few drops in the second quarter.
“They have great coaches over there. They coached me,” Clyburn said of a CMA staff which includes his former Camden High coaches Jeff Jordan and Speedy Johnson. “I know the quality of the players that they have is getting better and better. They have a kid over there (USC signee Dexter Wideman) who could be playing against Alabama in a few weeks. And, (linebacker Joshua Miller) is one of the better football players that I’ve seen on film since I’ve been back in high school. The kid plays hard and is hard-nosed.
“I didn’t mention that to our kids because I knew we were going to have to grind, scratch and claw, regardless. Their entire team is so much better than they were last year and the year before. We knew it was going to be a battle coming in.”
The final statistical battle virtually mirrored the scoreboard as NC outgained CMA, 238 to 202, in total yardage. Tailbacks William Jenkins and Cedric Cunningham led the hosts with 79 and 72 yards rushing, respectively, while quarterback John Bowers completed six of his 11 passes for 109 yards and two touchdowns.
The Spartans were held to 41 yards on 23 second half snaps. They were led by tailback Nyaun Pate, who rushed 17 times for 71 yards. Miller had 11 carries for 48 yards while fullback Ian Benton ran for 18 yards on seven calls while throwing a 52-yard second quarter touchdown pass to Tyler Dodson.
The Knights took the lead for the first time of the evening when Bowers hooked up with Wyant on a 26-yard fade route with 9:26 left in the game. The play came on the first snap from scrimmage following a 16-yard CMA punt from its own end zone. Bowers then found Jay Parks out of the backfield with the two-point pass to make it 20-14.
The Spartans managed just 17 yards on their first four possessions of the second half but that would change on their final series which started from their own 29 following an NC fumble with 6:52 left in the contest.
A 12-yard run by Miller opened things as the visitors stayed on the ground for the first eight plays of the series which included a four-yard Miller carry to the Knights’ 49 which had an extra five yards tacked onto it by a face mask penalty.
An incompletion on third and nine from the 43 led to a fourth down play in which the Spartans went to the fullback pass well for the second time as Benton took the handoff from quarterback Raeshawn Breckenridge, rolled to his right and heaved a deep pass into heavy coverage which fell to the ground to end the series and the Spartans’ hopes with 2:33 showing on the game clock.
CMA’s offensive difficulties against the Knights’ defense in the second half was in stark contrast to the first which started with the visitors taking the opening kickoff and marching 63 yards on nine plays --- all running --- capped by Miller’s two-yard scoring plunge at the 8:04 marker of the first quarter. NC plugged up the two-point run.
The first series had Breckenridge tucking the ball away and going for 13 yards on the first snap before Pate went for 19 on the next play to get to the the Knights’ 31.
NC saw its first series open with promise as Bowers found Cedric Cunningham out of the backfield with a 24-yard pass to the CMA 45. But a pair of breakdowns in communication with the running game led to the Knights using a Bowers quick kick on fourth and four from the 49. It was clear that Clyburn wanted to play a game of field position and it would pay off shortly thereafter.
The Knights cashed in on a short field following a Spartan punt as the hosts took over at the CMA 45 with their second possession. A 34-yard Cunningham carry to the nine had an extra five yards for a face make penalty tacked onto it. Three plays later, on third and goal from the five, Bowers flipped a pass to his left to Parks who made the grab and went untouched into the end zone for the tying score with 1:09 left in the first quarter.
Having given the NC defense a stead dose of the run in their first two series, the Spartans delved into their bags of tricks on third and 18 from their own 52. In a foreshadowing of what would come later, Benton took a handoff and went to his right, stopped and sent a strike to a wide-open Dodson, who went in for the go-ahead touchdown with 10:13 showing on the second quarter clock. The 240-pound Miller then bulled his way in with the two-point conversion as the guests went up 14-6.
Clyburn said it was almost as if CMA took a page from his team’s playbook. The Knights had little to work with from the film of the Spartans’ season-opening win in a game in which they did not put the ball in the air.
“We had so little film on them that it was hard to see wht they do,” Clyburn said of the CMA offense. “We had to prepare for a lot of different things and that was something that we were a little overaggressive on and they did a great job.
“We actually prepared for this; that they were going to mimic some of the plays that we’ve run. We threw the halfback pass last week and we started running the toss and the veer; by doing that, you get double work. It makes sense that Will Rice and his staff would do that so that they are getting both their defense ready and their offense ready.”
Needing an answer, the Knights did just that on the ensuing drive in which they used a 28-yard kickoff return from Zack Jones to the CMA 47. A nine-yard Cunningham run had an extra 15 yards added to it thanks to a face mask penalty. On third and eight from the 22, Bowers hooked up with a sliding Wyant for a first down at the 12. Two plays later, Jenkins went up the gut for the touchdown run to close the gap to 14-12 which is where the score stayed after an incomplete two-point pass with 6:30 left in the first half.
The Spartans had one last threat before the break. They marched from midfield, following an unsuccessful onsides kick attempt, to the NC 16. But Breckenridge could not find an open receiver on fourth and 11 from the 16 and was dragged down at the line of scrimmage with 2.1 ticks left in the first half clock as CMA carried a 14-12 advantage into intermission.
Rice said missing out on that last opportunity in the second quarter was a tough pill to swallow.
“I thought we played extremely well in the first half,” he said. “We got tired in the second half, which I knew was coming because we didn’t play a whole bunch of our starters in the second half last week. It’s a process; we’ll get there. You can’t force conditioning, it just takes time.”
Looking to take control of the game in the second half, the Knights took the kick and started from their own 19. On second and 17 from the 25, Bowers found Cunningham on a catch and run for 33 yards to the CMA 42. Cunningham then broke loose for 21-yard run to the 18 as the hosts were knocking on the door. But the door slammed shut when Danny Colbert-Sims picked off a pass at the CMA five to end the threat with 7:25 left in the third.
“That first drive in the third quarter, I thought we had them going,” Clyburn said. “But on the slant, their kid (Colbert-Sims) who had been blitzing and was up there close, just backs out perfectly and made a great play.”
Clyburn, whose team has a bye this week, said he wanted his team to come out and take the bull by the horns on the first possession of the second half and keep the momentum the rest of the way. Instead, this game went down to the wire.
“Defensively,” he said of CMA, “they were gashing us in the first half. I thought they controlled the football well with their big running backs and just running it straight at us. We made some adjustments at halftime and I was very proud of our defensive coaches for basically, shutting it down in the second half.”
“Offensively, it was one of those things where we had (the ball) so little time in the first half --- we scored on two of our three drives --- but we got off-schedule on that first drive and had to punt. The kids responded when we had to and we made big plays. I told them, ‘Guys, we’re going to have to make big plays.’”
Rice said his team, which travels to East Clarendon on Friday, is on the right track. A little more conditioning and some time on the practice field should remedy many of the Spartans’ ills.
“I thought we played well in spots and, we made mistakes in spots,”he said. “We’ll go back, look at this film, correct our mistakes and compliment our kids on the good things we did tonight.”
“When you get in a tough game like this, against a good team like that, they are not going to give you anything. We had to earn everything we got. We made mistakes and we’ll fix those. We’re three weeks into the season and a lot of people are just getting ready to play their jamboree after three weeks. We’ll be fine. We have to come to practice Monday, be ready to get in shape and correct our mistakes.”