Louis Clyburn has not even started looking into or, trying to figure out the playoff scenario for Region 4-AA. All the North Central head football coach knows is that unless his team wins its final two regular season games, both on the road, the Knights will be sitting the post-season out for the second straight year.
A week ago, Clyburn thought his team needed to finish the conference season with three wins in order to secure a playoff berth. That chance went up in smoke as visiting Indian Land rallied from a 14-0 halftime deficit, tied the game at 21 late in the fourth quarter before scoring the lone touchdown in the Kansas Shootout overtime session to leave Boonetown with a 28-21 loss.
The setback was the fifth straight for NC which fell to 3-5 overall and 0-4 in league play with games left at Cheraw and Central the next two Friday nights.
“We have two more games ahead of us and the playoff picture in our conference is so foggy that I couldn’t even dream of trying to tell you what has to happen,” Clyburn said of the playoff scenario and how his team fits into it. “If we win the next two games, there is a possibility that we can make the playoffs. That’s all I can say.”
Clyburn said Friday’s loss was one which may linger for a team which played its best game since a 12-8 loss to Lewisville in the fourth game of the season. He said he could not have been more proud of the overall effort from everyone involved.
“It was awful,” he said of the gut-wrenching defeat, “just because of the way our past few games had gone. I hate it for our seniors because it was also Senior Night for us.
“We changed the way we did things in practice last week. The kids were motivated. We had a tough week of practice; the kids were physical and they were physical again on Friday night. I was proud of the way that our coaches coached and our players competed. This program has come a long way.”
The end result was even harder to take after the Knights carried a 14-0 advantage into the locker room at halftime by playing a near-flawless first 24 minutes.
Clyburn rotated quarterbacks Bubba Williams and Delmarcus Wood under center throughout the game and each player may have had their best night of the season. It was Wood, a speedy senior, who gave the hosts a 6-0 lead when he kept the ball on the zone read and went for a 70-yard scoring run 70-yard. “He made everybody on the field miss,” Clyburn said of the carry. “Delmarcus took it straight up middle.”
A missed extra point try kept the score at 6-0.
Clyburn said his team looked to have had a two-touchdown lead minutes later when an NC player picked up an apparent Warrior fumble and returned it for a touchdown. But the play was called dead by an officials’ inadvertent whistle.
“They fumbled it and the (official) on their side throws the bean bag,” Clyburn said of the play. “The officials and everything is moving and we scoop it and run it to the end zone and the whistle blows: The guy on our side inadvertently blew his whistle.
“I figured that we had possession of the ball when the official inadvertently blew his whistle. The officiating crew’s explanation to me was that the only choice was for Indian Land to get the ball back where the bean bag was thrown. I understood that it was the rub of the green with the inadvertent whistle. The guy on our side apologized to me and said, ‘Coach, I hate it.’
“I said, ‘I understand that we’re not going to be awarded the touchdown. I get it. But, it’s our ball.”
The Knights overcame that missed chance by driving down the field in the second quarter in a march capped by a five-yard scoring toss from Williamson to Markeis Barnes. A fake PAT extra point kick was then run in for the two-point conversion by Jones as the Knights took a 14-0 lead which they would carry into the intermission.
“We knew they were going to try loading the box to try and stop our run game,” Clyburn said of his halftime talk and adjustments. “We were doing a good job running the ball and mixing our screens, draws and we were running option a good bit against them.
“Our quarterback run game was awesome. Michael Williamson probably had his best night running the football. He probably gained 50 yards rushing. We had a pretty sharp first half and we tackled (IL running back Austin Gordon) pretty doggone well.”
Gordon, the Warriors’ 250-pound running back, started gaining traction after being bogged down in the first half. Following an exchange of punts to open the third quarter, Gordon found his way into the end zone on a run to trim the deficit to 14-7.
“We did a good job with our punting and keeping them with a long field all game,” Clyburn said of making the guests work for what they got.Unfazed, NC drove the ball down the field and scored on a one-yard Cedric Cunningham run to take the 21-7 lead early in the fourth quarter. Cunningham finished the game by rushing for a team-best 107 yards.“We scored twice inside the five yard line so, we shook off our red zone woes,” Clyburn said after his team failed to cash in twice from the Andrew Jackson two one week earlier.The Knights could have added to their lead only to drop what looked to be a sure pick six. The missed chance helped keep the IL drive going as Gordon broke loose for a 40-yard run which was followed by 6-foot-2 inch wide out John Gregory coming down with a fade route pass for a touchdown as the guests drew to within 21-14.With some four minutes left in the game and with his offense facing a fourth and five from the IL side of the field, Clyburn decided to punt. It was a decision which he would later second-guess himself on.“I said that we would punt it and hold them with our defense because we had tackled Gordon pretty well all night and made their passing game non-existent,” he said. “Now, I wish we would have gone for it.’NC thought they had this game wrapped up when on a fourth and 10 from their own 25, a Warrior receiver extended the ball to try and get the first down. Clyburn said the ball carrier lost control of the ball in mid-air with Wood picking up the loose ball. But an official ruled that the ground caused the fumble and the guests continued the drive, scoring the tying points with a touchdown with a little more than two minutes to play on a Gordon touchdown run.“It was a kick in the gut for everybody,” Clyburn said of the non-fumble call which he disputed. NC was not done yet as it went into its two-minute drill and marched into IL territory. A 40-yard screen pass play was negated when it was ruled that a Knight receiver was not set. From there, Williamson found Wood with a 20-yard screen pass which was followed by two incomplete passes into the end zone. With less than 10 seconds to play, Clyburn called on Jones to attempt what would have been a game-winning field goal only to see the kick sail a few feet wide as the gun sounded to end regulation.A Gordon scoring run opened the extra session. NC was unable to answer on its 10-yard drive which included a pass interference call on third down which does not result in a first down but rather, replaying the down. A pair of incompletions on third and fourth down ended the game for the Knights who received strong performances from both Williamson and Wood.“Our quarterbacks both probably played their best games of the season,” Clyburn said of Williamson and Wood. “Bubba is only a sophomore and is getting progressively better. Delmarcus Wood made enough plays for a highlight tape to get him a scholarship somewhere. “Both those kids played well all night as did our linebackers.”Calling this a “really tough loss for everyone”, Clyburn said his team made positive strides on Friday. “The attitude of our team was great,” he said. “It was a tough loss. Then, to go back and see those two fumbles that we recovered and didn’t get credit for which would have been the difference in the ballgame … you never use the officials as an excuse but when it’s that blatant, it’s hard not to … I just feel bad for our kids. They deserved to win that game but it was just taken from them.“Our kids played a lot better in this game. It would have been good for the program for us to get that momentum back. But this was a really tough ballgame. It was just a war, to put it lightly. It was a very physical ballgame.”