As his team boarded the bus for Friday’s game with Indian Land, North Central head football coach Louis Clyburn just about had enough healthy bodies to form a hockey line, never mind an offensive line.
While an exaggeration, it is not too much of a stretch as the visiting Knights had four starters on the offensive front sidelined by injury, leaving Darius Myers as the lone starter in uniform for what was a 20-6 loss to the host Warriors.
The setback gave the Knights a 4-4 overall record and a 2-2 mark in Region 4-AA heading into Friday’s home game with league-leading Cheraw. Indian Land also exited Friday’s game with a 4-4 ledger and 2-2 in 4-AA action.
An injury-riddled line was just part of the problem for Clyburn and company which were down 10 players due to injury, thinning an already young depth chart.
"They played well and they played hard," Clyburn said of his patchwork offensive line which started taking on injuries in the summer and things have not slowed since. "When it gets down to the nitty-gritty, you have to give Indian Land credit. They are good and they have a big defensive line."
NC, which has been starting nine sophomores and a freshman, saw that figure go to eight sophomore starters and three freshmen who were inserted into the starting lineup on Friday. That, Clyburn said, is not a good combination when going up against a team with the size and talent like the Warriors possess.
"When you have 10 injured players," he said, "and six of those are starters and another starter was injured during the game, it’s tough. At North Central High School, it hurts you.
"We’re not blessed with a lot of depth here. Fifty percent of our starters on Friday were 15 years old or younger."
The visitors’ youth and lack of experience came back to haunt them two weeks before Halloween. On two occasions, the Knights came up empty when having the ball inside the IL five yard line. In the second quarter, an NC receiver moved his head and was called for illegal procedure. In the final quarter, NC could not get into the end zone from the one after the Warriors committed pass interference on second down.
"We were still able to run the ball. Our kids fought and scratched," Clyburn said. "There was not a lack of confidence in the calls by our coaching staff. We did not go up there with a conservative game plan."
The Knights got off to a good start in this one with tailback William Jenkins breaking free on a 30-yard run to midfield. But on a pass play from the area on which the Indian Land logo was painted, a slip by the quarterback and the intended receiver resulted in the Warriors picking the ball off. NC held on the drive and got the ball back on downs. A lost fumble on the guests’ second drive led to a 40-yard IL field goal by a kicker/punter who Clyburn said was a weapon and was able to change field position with his leg.
The Knights got the ball back and faced a fourth and inches from midfield and tried to run a sweep which the Warriors sniffed out and got the hold and the ball back. This time, the hosts cashed in with a touchdown and a 10-0 lead, which is the way this game stood through intermission.
The Warriors put this one out of reach with a field goal and a touchdown in the third quarter for a 20-0 lead.
NC averted the shutout when the guests drove down the field with Jenkins getting the final six yards for the touchdown. Zack Jones followed with the PAT kick.
"William Jenkins had a good night running the ball," Clyburn said. "He had a couple big runs for us and he was hard for them to bring down."
NC had the ball at the IL one with seven minutes left in the game, only to be unable to find the end zone as the Warriors’ lead remained one of two touchdowns.
"When you get the ball in the red zone," Clyburn said, "your play-calling gets tighter. We just missed on a few things when we got the ball down there. We just couldn’t finish drives."
While Jenkins had a big night running the football, in order to get Jenkins. Jay Parks and Cedrick Cunningham all in the same backfield at one time, the Knights went to the wildcat set with Cunningham taking the direct snap, along with the wishbone formation.
With Cheraw leading 4-AA with a 4-0 mark and Central with one loss behind followed by Chesterfield, Indian Land and the Knights, things are jammed up in the second spot in the seven-team circuit. North Central has a chance to take a giant step forward in its hopes to earn a AA Division II playoff berth with back-to-back home games with Cheraw and Central to close out the regular season.
"We’re still in the driver’s seat for the playoffs, if we beat Cheraw and Central," Clyburn said. "We’re still playing for second place if nobody else beats Cheraw. We still have two huge opportunities ahead of us.
"We just don’t want our kids to get discouraged because our loss was not from a lack of effort or, a lack of will on our kids’ part."
Knight Lights:Jenkins led the NC offense with 166 yards rushing on 19 carries … John Bowers completed eight of his 17 passes for 105 yards with Parks being on the receiving end of four of those throws for 44 yards … The guests turned the ball over three times while Indian Land did not commit a turnover. NC outgained the Warriors in total yardage, 321-207 … Junior defensive back Delmarcus Wood led the Knights with 15 tackles while senior linebacker Jeromy Alexander was in on 11 stops … Friday’s home game with Cheraw has been designated as Military Appreciation Night.