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The streak is -- finally-- over
Knights snap 17-year opening-game hex by knocking off Fighting Hornets, 24-13
NCS MARQUIS BARNES SCORED on a 30-yard halfback pass from Cedrick Cunningham in the Knights win over C.A. Johnson on Friday night in Columbia.

Rather than pad the score to make it look even more impressive than his team’s final 24-13 win over C.A. Johnson was, North Central head coach Louis Clyburn decided to take a knee on three straight snaps after his offense moved to the hosts’ five yard line with less than two minutes left in Friday’s season opener at Bolden Stadium.

Not willing to risk injury for the sake of some window-dressing, the seventh-year Knights’ boss was happy to head back to the bus leading a group of both excited and healthy players.

“The Knights started out their season at 1-0,” Clyburn said of the end result. When informed it was the first time any NC coach had said that after game one since a 37-21 victory over Mount Pleasant to kick off the 1997 campaign, he laughed before saying, “Really? Well, that’s even better.”

Many players on Clyburn’s roster were not even born the last time the Knights opened a season with a victory. And, obviously, this will be their first experience in taking a 1-0 record into the second week of the season. That fact, said their head coach, should do wonders this week on the practice field in preparation for Friday’s home opener with Timmonsville.

“It gives us confidence,” said Clyburn following Friday’s week zero win.“That’s what we told our kids after the game.

“When you win, its shows your guys that what we’re doing works. We beat a good football team in C.A. Johnson. Coach (Demond) Logan does a great job over there. His team is well-coached. And I’ll tell you what, we won’t face a faster team than they are the rest of the season.”

No slouch in the speed and athleticism department itself, NC needed just three snaps to score its first points of the season as sophomore quarterback Bubba Williamson, making his varsity debut under center, hooked up with wide receiver Zack Jones on a slant pattern which the junior turned into a 70-yard touchdown play which put the guests on top, 6-0 after the PAT kick failed. 

“Zack Jones can fly,” Clyburn said of Jones’ catch and run into the end zone as he left a trail of would-be tacklers in his wake.

The Fighting Hornets put their speed on display early when on their first play of the season, quarterback JaQuan Perry found a streaking Malik Sulaiman with a 65-yard fade pattern pass for a touchdown on which the senior wide out raced past and got behind the Knights’ secondary as the hosts jumped to a 7-6 advantage after the PAT kick just made it over the goal post.

“Holy cow,” Clyburn said after the blazing start to the game, “I thought it was going to be a track meet. We made some adjustments after their touchdown. After that, we knew where (Sulaiman) was the rest of the night.”

The Knights took the lead for keeps in the second quarter with Williamson directing a diverse offense which used the air game to keep CAJ guessing to go along with the NC rushing attack.

A series of completions moved the guests into Fighting Hornet territory with Williamson hooking up with senior Delmarcus Wood on a six-yard bubble screen to cap the scoring march which gave the Knights a 12-7 advantage.

In his varsity debut as a starter, Willamson showed the poised of a more-seasoned veteran. Clyburn acknowledged the sophomore’s having played varsity baseball with helping with any nerves other players in his situation may have felt.

“Playing varsity baseball for the past two seasons really helped Bubba,” Clyburn said. “It helped season him for football. He was very comfortable out there for us.” 

NC had one last drive before intermission, marching to the CAJ 20 while managing the clock well. With four seconds left in the half, a throwback pass to Williamson resulted in the quarterback making the grab but out of the end zone as the Knights carried a five-point cushion into the locker room at the break.

During the 15-minute halftime, Clyburn preached to his team of the importance of coming out ready to play in the third quarter.

“We emphasized how important the third quarter would be,” he said. “Our play in the third quarter last season was part of what hurt us.”

The second half did not open well for NC as the Fighting Hornets used a 60-yard kickoff return to set up shop on the Knights’ side of the 50. Going up top again, Perry’s pass was picked off by Wood at his own 40. He proceeded to blow past Fighting Hornet pursuers for a 60-yard pick-six for his second touchdown of the evening.

“Delmarcus looked like a Cadillac racing against VWs,” Clyburn said of Wood’s jaunt to the end zone. “Even guys on our sidelines said they have never seen him run that fast before.”

After the failed two-point pass, the Knights led this one, 18-7.

After forcing a CAJ punt, the Knights got the football late in the third quarter. Staring down a fourth and eight from the Fighting Hornet 30, Clyburn said he took the advice of running back coach Robbie Cash who said the hosts were primed for being given a gadget play.

The handoff from Williamson went to tailback Cedrick Cunningham who took a few steps, stopped and sent a perfect pass to an open Marquis Barnes for the touchdown. The PAT pass failed as the Knights led, 24-7 in the fourth quarter before Sulaiman took a 50-yard pass from Perry which he turned into a second touchdown.

“It was just a deep ball that (Perry) threw and he said, ‘Go up and get it,” Clyburn said of the pass play.

On the ensuing kickoff, a line drive kick hit an NC up man and was recovered by the hosts who marched into the red zone only to face a fourth and 15 before turning the ball over on downs. Clyburn credited the play of Zack Jones and his freshman brother, Jamel, for their play at outside linebacker in helping to contain the CAJ ground game.

Getting the ball back deep in their own territory with just under nine minutes to play, the NC offense kept the ball on the ground and kept collecting first downs against a weary CAJ defense before getting a first down at the Fighting Hornets’ five and then, running out the clock.

While the hosts struggled to catch their breath on a muggy night, Clyburn praised his assistant coaches for making sure NC players had time to catch their breath on the sidelines while having to play on both sides of the ball.

“Our staff did a great job of substitutions,” he said. “Almost all our skill players had to play both ways and our coaches made sure to get those guys some rest on defense and offense.”

Clyburn said he expects an upbeat week of practice in preparation for Friday’s pairing against another athletic squad in Timmonsville.

Last season, it was the Whirlwinds which held serve on their home field by sending the Knights home with a 36-28 loss. Clyburn hopes to return the favor this week when THS comes to Boonetown.

“With a young team like we have,” he said, “you have to be excited about their having confidence in getting a win like this. Now, though, we have to guard against being overconfident. There is a saying that ‘Let your success be your noise.’

“We have to let our win do our talking for us. We still have to go back to work on Monday to get ready to play a very good Timmonsville team.”