KERSHAW -- Coaches hate being right, especially when others think they are wrong.
In the days leading up to Friday’s game at Andrew Jackson, North Central head football coach Louis Clyburn was telling anyone within earshot that the host Volunteers had turned the corner and were playing much better football after getting blown out in their first two games of the season.
Unfortunately for Clyburn, AJ continued on its upward path in handing the visiting Knights a 35-15 loss last Friday night. The game was the only one involving a Kershaw County team to be played over the weekend.
The loss was the fourth in a row for NC which fell to 0-3 in Region 4-AA and 3-4 overall. The Vols improved to 3-4 on the season and, more importantly, stand at 1-2 in 4-AA action.
“They have good players and they have gotten better as the season has progressed,” said Clyburn who was the AJ head coach for the 2008 season. “They’ve been very fortunate with injuries; they have not had many injuries. They’ve improved little by little.
“Up front was where the biggest difference in the ballgame was. Their linemen are a little more experienced and more seasoned than ours. You have to give them credit but did we have opportunities in this game? Absolutely.”
The Knights had a pair of third quarter chances go by the boards without coming away with any points.
The AJ defense came up big when the guests got inside the Volunteers’ five, first with Dalton Allen batting away a Bubba Williamson pass on fourth and one from inside the one before the Vols’ defensive front stuffed NC tailback Cedric Cunningham on a fourth and goal from inside the two. Conversely, AJ cashed in on its second possession after driving into enemy territory.
Starting from their own 42 following a punt, the Vols marched 58 yards in 10 plays behind quarterback Heath Gandy. The junior called his own number seven times with an 11-yard keeper getting a first down at the NC 14. Faced with a fourth and one from the five, Gandy first lined up in the shotgun before charging under center to take the snap and picking up four yards. He did the same thing on first and goal, plunging in for the game’s first score to give the hosts a 7-0 lead with 1:45 left in the first quarter following Bryce Phillips’ PAT kick.
The first of three NC turnovers gave the ball back to the Vols when Dalton Haven recovered a botched snap from center at the Knights’ 33. On the first play from that spot, AJ tailback Logan Lucas took the pitch on the toss sweep, stopped the fired a 32-yard completion to tight end Seth Hinson. On first and goal from the one, quarterback Tad McGowan went over center for the score and a 14-0 lead with 41.6 ticks left in the first quarter clock.
Continuing to struggle on offense, the Knights punted from their own 42 on fourth and 25 as the Vols set up shop at the their own 42. On third and five from the 49, McGowan threw into coverage with an NC defender got a hand on the desperation pass. That allowed just enough time for wide receiver Justin Stevens to get under and grab the batted pass which he turned into a 51-yard scoring play and a 21-0 lead with 8:12 to go before halftime.
NC looked to have had steadied the ship after an 18-yard kickoff return to the NC 46 from freshman Jamel Jones. On the ensuing snap, quarterback Delmarcus Wood recovered a muffed long snap from center and splitting two defenders coming at him and taking off on a 54-yard scoring run to close the gap to 21-7.
The dagger came with 6.4 seconds left in the half when the do-everything Gandy went up and over a defender, came down with an eight-yard Tad McGowan fade pattern pass and managed to get a foot down in the far right corner of the end zone to send the hosts into the break holding a 28-7 advantage. While that play hurt, Clyburn said the key play in the drive came on third and 26 from the NC 43, when McGowan tempted fate by throwing into double coverage with Gandy winning the three-player battle by splitting defenders, making the catch and going for 40 yards to the three.
“He made a big catch to get them down there and then, made a big catch in the end zone,” Clyburn said of Gandy’s exploits.
“We had it double-covered on his catch in the middle. He made the exact same catch a week earlier against Lamar. We pressured their quarterback on that play but it was a good catch (by Gandy.) You have to give him credit for that. And that play for the touchdown, it was just a perfect throw and a great catch.”
Clyburn said that while the late-half touchdown stung, he and his staff tried to rally the troops during intermission by telling their team that they were able to move the football on the Volunteers.
“We could move the ball and we could stop them,” he said of his halftime talk. “We had a high snap and fumbled and gave the ball to them on their side of the field and you just can’t do that. The thing is, we’ve been really good with turnovers this season.”
Needing something to jump start them, the Knights received the second half kick and on second and 10 from their own 32, Williamson rolled left and spotted Zac Jones with a pass which turned into a 35-yard gain to the AJ 33. Cunningham then dodged defenders for a 24-yard carry to set up a first and goal from the nine. A two-yard Cunningham carry and Williamson’s scrambling for a gain of six set the ball at the one. Cunningham was stacked up along the line in taking the direct snap on third down. Trying to take advantage of a stacked Volunteer defense, the Knights tried to zip a slant pattern pass on fourth down only to have Allen smack the throw down.
Getting a three and out, NC had a short field after a 30-yard punt to the AJ 31. But the guests went the other way and went for a first down on fourth and 26 from the Vols’ 47 only to have a Williamson to Cunningham tunnel screen come up 11 yards short.
AJ then needed just five plays to extend its advantage to 35-7. Haven bulled his way for 28 yards to the NC 31 on a third and one carry. Gandy did the rest as he kept the ball on the zone read and went over left tackle and into the end zone with his third touchdown of the game with 4:47 to go in the third quarter.
“Heath Gandy may be a sleeper in some people’s eyes when it comes to being on these all-state teams. He’s a very gutsy football player,” Clyburn said of the 5-foot-10, 160-pounder.
Needing a quick score to try and stay in the ballgame, NC put together a 14-play drive which began at its own 28. On third and 12 from the 26, Cunningham went for 14 yards on a run. On the next snap, Williamson hooked up with tailback DeAunte Samuel on a slip screen which went for 18 yards and a first down at the AJ 42.
A 19-yard Williamson run set the ball at the 15 and a 13-yard Williamson-to-Wood hookup on third and nine from the 14 gave the visitors a first and goal from the one. Again, though, the AJ defense came up big as Cunningham’s fourth down carry was spotted with the nose of the football resting on the goal line.
The Knight defense would get a safety to cut the deficit to 35-9 with 3.2 seconds left in the third quarter. But Clyburn said his team’s inability to get a few extra yards or, in this instance, one yard is something which has grated on him.
“That is where, up front, we have to get more gritty and be able to knock them back in the end zone,” he said of his team inability to cash in on short-field scoring chances.
“We have to finish blocks and make plays. We certainly had an assortment of different things that we tried and different things that we’ve been working on but we weren’t able to get it into the end zone those two times.
“It would have been nice because if we score those two times, then those last four minutes of the ballgame mean something and you’ve got yourself a battle.”
The Knights closed the scoring with 16.1 seconds left when Cunningham took a screen pass from Williamson on third and 20 from the AJ 36 and zig-zagged through defenders and into the end zone. The scoring play capped a four-play 39-yard drive which was set up by Jamel Jones recovering an AJ fumble with 2:25 to go.
NC closes out the home portion of its schedule on Friday when Indian Land comes to Boonetown for senior night. It kicks off a three-game end of the regular season stretch in which the Knights have their work cut out for themselves if they want to make a return to the state playoffs after having missed out last year.
“There’s something all of us, the kids and coaches,” Clyburn said, “can do better. We can play harder. We can coach harder. We have to decide if we want to make the playoffs.
“This football team still has a chance the make the playoffs and finish 3-3 in our region. And, certainly, our next three opponents aren’t setting the world on fire. But it all depends on our attitude.”
Knight Lights: It was homecoming at AJ on Friday and a large crowd on both sides showed up for the game which included several floats on display at the front entrance to the stadium … The Knights ran the ball 27 times for 132 yards with Cunningham going for 74 yards on 17 carries while Wood picked up 71 yards on two runs … Williamson completed 14 of his 22 passes for 178 yards while Wood was two of five for minus (-6 yards). Cunningham missed the mark on a halfback pass … AJ rushed 45 times and gained 142 yards with Gandy picking up 77 yards on 13 carries … Thirteen AJ carries resulted in zero or negative yardage … Freshman Jamel Jones led the NC defensive surge with nine tackles including a sack and two behind the line. His older brother Zac, a junior, rang up eight stops with a sack. Cornerback Robert Carter made eight tackles.