BELTON -- By doing what it does best, Belton-Honea Path forced Camden into doing something which it would rather not have done.
The host Bears used a relentless ground attack, rushing for 316 yards on 53 carries, to advance to the second round of the AAA Upper State playoffs with a 28-9 win over Camden on Friday night in the Upstate.
The loss capped a roller coaster 5-6 campaign for the Bulldogs whose playoff fate was not determined until Monday afternoon after the South Carolina High School League’s Appellate Panel voted 4-1 to overturn the organization’s earlier post-season ban for both Camden and Dreher. The two Region 4-AAA rivals were involved in as post-game fracas on Oct. 17.
In Camden’s three conference victories, the Bulldogs achieved a balance between the run and the passing game. On Friday, the guests threw a season-high 43 times with junior quarterback Jaylen Nelson completing 16 of those, with a myriad of dropped passes not helping his numbers, for 167 yards. CHS was held to 61 yards on 27 carries as the guests had a season-best 70 offensive snaps.
If he had his way, CHS head coach Jimmy Neal said his team would have liked to have been more balanced on offense. But the Bears defense took away the ground game and limited the Dogs to minus (-2) two yards rushing on 13 first half carries. The hosts also had a strip and recovered a Camden fumble at the B-HP three late in the second quarter when CHS was threatening to knot the game at 14. The lost fumble was one of three CHS turnovers in the contest.
"You don’t know why you play the way we did," said Neal following his 200th game as head coach at his alma mater, "but Belton-Honea had a lot to do with it. They’re a good team and they are very physical. We didn’t execute very well tonight at all. We had some opportunities; we had a fumble and some dropped passes. But those guys over there had a lot to do with it."
The Camden game plan was to use the ground game to try and help open the passing lanes. But a quick 14-0 deficit and B-HP’s clogging the middle forced a switch in strategy.
"They took the run away from us," Neal said. "We had them beat a few times on some verticals (passes) and different stuff. We had them where we wanted them but we just didn’t execute."
With leading rusher Uriah Oliver still out with an injury sustained in an auto accident, the Bears looked to tailback Juwann Abney to carry the load. And 6-foot-2, 195-pounder did just that in rushing for 177 yards on 26 carries.
It was Abney who helped get the hosts in gear after an incomplete pass on fourth and two from the B-HP 35 ended Camden’s first offensive series.
With Abney getting the call four straight times, his 14-yard carry gave the Bears a first down at the CHS 25. But the hosts went to tailback O’Ryan Warren for the final 34 yards as the sophomore sliced through the middle of the line and sprinted left for the first score of the game which gave the hosts a 7-0 lead with 5:23 showing on the first quarter clock.
After a second consecutive Camden punt, B-HP took over from its own 39 with 90 seconds left in the opening stanza.
An 18-yard quarterback keeper by a scrambling Austin Estes produced a first down at the Camden 42 while bringing Kameron Burton under center as the Bears operated out of the wildcat set with Burton calling his own number four times in a row while netting 19 yards. Abney would do the honors on this 12-play drive, scoring from eight yards out to hike the lead to 14-0 with 9:22 to go before intermission.
Needing something to light a spark, the Dogs received that from wide receiver Taylor Kelly who fielded the ensuing kick at his own 18. The 6-foot-1 junior took off in front of the B-HP bench for a 71-yard return to the Bears’ 11. Three snaps later, on third and 13 from the 14, Nelson lofted a pass to 6-foot-4 wide out D.J. Nelson who was between defenders and straddling the back line of the end zone. Wilson made the grab and got a foot inbounds for his third score of the season. This one cut the lead to 14-7, after a Nelson Semple PAT kick, at the 7:46 mark of the second quarter.
The momentum stayed with Camden when Welton Cauthen and Tyrone Kelly converged on Estes for a sack at the CHS 40 on a fourth and eight play.
The Dogs went on the attack with Nelson finding Wilson for 17 yards on a third and three from the 47. Another 15 yards was tacked onto the play when Wilson was thrown to the ground well after the play was over. Nelson would then find Taylor Kelly for 13 yards at the three on a roll out pass. But just when it looked as if the visitors were going to even things, a fumble on a second and goal from the one was recovered by the Bears at the three. They took their 14-7 lead into the locker room at intermission after having survived a CHS threat in the closing seconds as Nelson and Taylor Kelly could not hook up on a jump ball pass near the goal line on the final snap of the opening 24 minutes.
"We tried to change our passing game up a little bit to help us get passes off," Neal said of his team’s halftime adjustments. "We thought we could still run the ball but we weren’t able to. (B-HP) refused to let us run it, which was a good strategy on their part."
Camden’s defense was on the field for 31 second half snaps and after B-HP’s Austin Daniels picked off a CHS pass on the third play of the second half, the Bears were in business at the Camden 20. They would advance to the two but could not punch it in as runs by T.C. McCullough and Abney, on fourth down, were rebuffed as the Dogs took over from their one.
The guests unsuccessfully went to Taylor Kelly on fly patterns on the first two snaps before the junior made a Bobby Engram-esque one-handed grab of a Nelson bullet over the middle on third and 10. That play helped CHS to punt from its own 38 with Parker Rankin fielding a low, skidding snap and moving to his left to avoid oncoming defenders, booted a 42-yard punt on the run to get the Dogs out of what looked to be a serious mess.
After having rushed for 79 yards on his first 18 carries, Abney broke loose on a 72-yard run on the first play from scrimmage following the punt. He was tracked down by Christian Flick and Semple at the Bulldogs’ nine. Estes’ first completion of the evening came two plays later as he found Michael Starks over the middle with a 10-yard scoring toss for a 21-7 lead with 3:28 left in the third quarter.
CHS stayed in this game after a 44-yard Rankin punt was down at the B-HP three. The Bears tried to run the ball out of the shadows of the goal post, but McCullough was swamped in the end zone for a safety as the gap was closed to 21-9 with 2:13 to play in the third.
A failed fourth down pass turned the ball over the B-HP which marched to the Camden nine. On that play, Semple picked off an Estes offering in the end zone as the Dogs’ defense came up big once again with their backs to the goal line.
"The defense played hard. I’m proud of them," Neal said. "They all played hard but (B-HP) was more than we could handle, at times."
With B-HP content to sit on its lead offensively and take away Camden’s chief receiving targets, this game turned into a series of punts. Well, almost.
Looking at a fourth and two from midfield, the Bears sent out punter Blake Holiday one more time. But this time, the hosts used
some trickery as Holiday acted as if the snap went over his head. Instead, the snap went to Warren, the up man, who took off on a 50-yard scoring run on the fake punt with 2:55 showing on the game clock to apply the final nail to Camden’s coffin.
Neal, whose players have been put through the proverbial wringer with the suspensions and other things which came as a result of the Dreher game incident three weeks earlier, refused to use the uncertainty of being in the post-season as an excuse. Instead, he said the experience was a bonding and learning tool for his team
"We’re not blaming that on this tonight," he said. "Last Friday when we lost to Chapin, our guys really thought that was it. I don’t think they thought we had a chance to be in the playoffs. Then, we won the appeal.
"I’m glad these guys got the opportunity to play another game. They’ve been through a lot. They didn’t make excuses … they’re stand-up guys."
While not a team which won a state title or, made a deep playoff run, Neal said this group of players will always hold a special place in his heart.
"It was a great bunch of guys," he said following his final talk to his players. "These kids have been going since December of last year and they never, ever, ever back down. I don’t know if we had three bad practices all year. This was a bunch that came out every day, worked hard and tried to do what the coaches asked them to do.
"This is a bunch of guys who I’ll remember for a long time. Your winningest teams are not always your favorite teams. I’ll always remember this bunch right here for the way they overcame adversity, cared for one another and did the right things. They are going to be successful people."
Bulldog Bites:A strong contingent of Camden fans made the long journey to Belton. A student bus made the trip as did the Bulldog band … Taylor Kelly, who missed the previous two games due to suspension from his actions in the Dreher fracas, had a breakout night. The junior wide out caught eight passes for 84 yards along with a 71-yard kickoff return … In his final game, Wilson caught eight passes for 83 yards giving him 41 catches for 603 yards and three touchdowns on the season … Parts of Friday’s game had an Arena League feel to it as music could be head coming through the loudspeakers during play … B-HP came into this game averaging 312 yards on the ground and topped that figure thanks to Warren’s 50-yard dash on the fake punt and Abney’s 72-yard carry. On 53 rushing attempts on the evening for the Bears, only six were of more than nine yards ... Senior tailback Kendrice Slater led the Bulldogs’ ground game with 19 carries for 55 yards, giving him 748 yards rushing in eight games this season. The 5-10, 212-poundeer also led the team with seven touchdowns ... Rankin had a solid night punting with seven punts going for an average of 38.7 yards per boot with three traveling 40-plus yards.