Dogged at the end: Silver Bluff's season ends short of state title
COLUMBIA — When Silver Bluff and Batesburg-Leesville played for the Class AA, Division II state championship in 2001, the game was decided in the final moments. Fast forward to Friday night, when the teams delivered another classic championship high school football game. This time, the outcome was in question until the very last second ticked off the scoreboard.
It wasn't until Jaylen Lawrence's desperation pass to the end zone was intercepted with no time remaining that the final score was decided, with Batesburg-Leesville getting a hard-fought 28-24 win for the state title.
“It was a great high school football game, and I think both teams represented what sportsmanship and hard play are all about,” said Al Lown, Silver Bluff's longtime head coach who previously guided the Bulldogs to championships in 2000 and 2001 – the latter a 21-20 victory that was clinched when the Panthers 2-point conversion pass for the win was incomplete. “I bet the high school league probably like to have us back about every year. It's class and hard play. It's good football.”
Lown wasn't exaggerating about the game played at Charlie W. Johnson Stadium on the campus of Benedict College in Columbia. The Bulldogs (12-2) overcame any number of obstacles, including a 14-point deficit, the loss of two-way starter McKenzie Wilson early in the second quarter to a left-knee injury, a combined four failed point after and 2-point conversions as well as a very good Batesburg-Leesville squad that finished the season on an 11-game winning streak including the state championship game.
In spite of those factors working against them, the Bulldogs displayed the skill and character that allowed them to win a dozen consecutive games this season and even took the lead early in the fourth quarter. Lawrence, who was outstanding in the second half, brought Silver Bluff all the way back from a 20-6 deficit. His 1-yard touchdown plunge with 9:02 remaining in the game put his squad ahead 24-20.
But the Panthers (12-2) displayed their championship mettle. They responded with a 63-yard, 12-play touchdown drive, culminating with a 2-yard scoring run from quarterback Jacquiel Chandler – his third of the game. The go-ahead drive took less than six minutes, leaving the run-heavy Bulldogs just enough time to mount one final shot at a comeback.
The possession got off to a poor start, as Silver Bluff had to burn a timeout – it's final timeout – before running a play because of confusion. But after that, the combination of plays from Lawrence, Shaquez Wright and RJ Stallings allowed the Bulldogs to meticulously work their way down the field. Ultimately, they gained 57 yards on 15 plays and seemed certain to score – if it weren't for the clock. Their methodical offense and fleeting amount of time made for a bad match.
Lawrence converted a fourth-and-7 scenario with a 14-yard pass to Stallings, setting up first-and-goal from the 8-yard line. After stopping the clock with a spike, the Bulldogs were moved back 5 yards when they were called for an illegal shift, leaving just nine second to play.
Lawrence danced out of pressure as he had all night but was forced into flipping the ball in the air in an attempt to avoid a sack and time expiring. The pass was fortunate not to be intercepted, or ruled a fumble, and left the Bulldogs with one last play with 1.6 seconds remaining.
Lawrence again dropped back, something he hasn't had to do a lot this season, and was again under great duress. He tried to his Wright in the front of the end zone, but his pass was intercepted by Dontavious Morris, who ran 3 yards before taking a knee and setting off the Batesburg-Leesville celebration.
“We pushed Shaquez out there and tried to run him on a little post. Really ,we wanted to throw the ball to (Jalen) Douse on a fade. We put Shaquez just to keep the safety off of him,” Lown explained. “But (Lawrence) got a little pressure, and he tried to hit Shaquez. You know, it was one of them things.”
While Lawrence wasn't able to lead the final comeback, the game wouldn't have been as close if it weren't for his fine performance. In spite of being a standout athlete, Lawrence hasn't run the ball a great deal this season. He made the most of his eight carries Friday, gaining 90 yards, scoring a touchdown and breaking loose on a 44-yard run that saw him go from one sideline to the other.
“He made some big plays; he really made some huge plays out there,” Lown said of Lawrence, who stepped up throwing as well with three of his six completions coming on the game's final possession. “He made some big plays on passes. It wasn't any called runs, it was just ad-libbed by him.”
Veteran Palmetto state football coach Jerry Brown, in his second season with the Panthers, was impressed with the Bulldogs, especially because they were forced to play outside of their comfort zone.
“Silver Bluff was a little out of its element, but it's an excellent team,” said Brown, who guided the Panthers to a state title two years removed from a one-win season. “They had some people hurt and were courageous.”
The biggest loss was Wilson, who left the game in the first minute of the second quarter when he hurt his left knee trying to block an extra point kick.
“We lost McKenzie Wilson, our starting tight end and linebacker. That's a two-way starter for us, and that killed us. We had to scramble around in formations and play a lot of people big minutes,” Lown said. “Depth thing, I tell you our kids fought. They fought their rear ends off.”
Defensive coordinator Eric Hofstetter agreed, saying Wilson's absence on defense was big, and might have helped the Panthers in their big second quarter.
After falling behind in the final minutes of the first quarter, Batesburg-Leesville stormed back with a vengeance. It picked up momentum when Nick Casares' extra point kick sailed wide left of the uprights and was followed by Iquavian Tolen's 75-yard run on the first play from scrimmage following.
Three plays later, the first snap of the second quarter, Chandler found the end zone for the first time on a 2-yard run.
Wilson was hurt on the ensuing extra point, where the Bulldogs were also flagged for a roughing penalty that allowed the Panthers to kickoff from Silver Bluff territory. That might have influenced Brown, who called for an onside kick on the next play, which his team recovered.
B-L only needed two plays to cover 31 yards for another Chandler touchdown. It got a big run from Terrance Wilson, who capitalized on McKenzie Wilson's absence.
The Panthers' Wilson benefitted from taking option pitches on sweeps to the left and gained 82 yards on five second-quarter carries. The Bulldogs adjusted and shut Wilson down the rest of the way, but the damage was done.
After Chandler's second score, Silver Bluff narrowly averted another disastrous play when Douse fumbled the kickoff return but was bailed out by Wright's recovery. While Wright had a standout game, rushing for 102 yards and two touchdowns on 21 carries, he wasn't able to get anything going on Silver Bluff's next possession. It led to a booming 40-yard punt by Casares, setting B-L up on their own 34.
The Panthers fed the ball to Terrance Wilson (11 carries, 102 yards) and Rickie Smith (21, 73) on the drive and benefitted from a lucky bounce when a Smith fumble bounced cleanly to Chandler who scooped it up and ran for four yards. Smith made up for his mistake on the next play, running the ball 9-yards into the end zone for a 20-6 lead with just more than five minutes to play in the half.
“We had two kicks we missed. We missed the onside kick. They had a fumble bounce up in their hands and we lost one of our best players,” Lown reflected of the terrible six-minute stretch. “They had momentum big, and I thought us driving down and making it 20-12 before half put us back in the game.”
Lown was referring to the 10-play drive that foreshadowed the situation at the end of the game. In this case, the Bulldogs had enough time and a critical fourth-down pass turned into a touchdown.
With slightly more than a minute in the half, Silver Bluff had fourth-and -6 from the B-L 21. They executed a screen play to perfection, as Lawrence connected with Wright, who easily gained the first down yardage before galloping into the end zone.
“I told the kids we wasn't but one play down. Dadgum if we didn't battle back,” Lown said.
Wright scored again about eight minutes into the third quarter, which was dominated by the Bulldogs. They forced the Panthers into three-and-outs on both of their possessions, allowing just 14 yards. The combination of Wright, Stallings (11 carries, 63 yards) and Lawrence running the ball had the Bulldogs moving and led to a go-ahead touchdown early in the fourth.
“I thought we battled them pretty dadgum good in the second half. We fought to the end, heck I'm proud of our kids and their effort,” Lown said. “We had the lead there with four minutes to go in the game. And then drove it all the way back down there.”
It completes a great season and several great careers for a core group of Bulldog seniors. Lown heaped praise on all of them, including two-way stars Gyasi Yeldell and James Jacks as well. Losing was a bitter pill, but the Silver Bluff players remained poised.
“We've been working on this since the ninth grade. I hate that we didn't pull it out,” Wright said. “I tell all the seniors, 'We handled our business.' I love them boys.”
Jacks was also disappointed but proud, saying, “It's hard to take because we got so close and drove down the field. I'm proud of my team, we fought so hard. I couldn't have spent four years at a better place playing football. I've got great teammates and great coaches.”
Noah Feit is the sports editor for the Aiken Standard and has been a professional journalist for more than 14 years after graduating from Syracuse University.
SB 6 6 6 6 – 24
BL 0 20 0 8 – 28
SB–Shaquez Wright 4 run (Nick Casares kick no good) 1:11.
BL–Jacquiel Chandler 2 run (Alexander Caughman kick good) 11:54.
BL–Chandler 10 run (Caughman kick no good) 11:24.
BL–Rickie Smith 9 run (Caughman kick good) 5:37.
SB–Jaylen Lawrence 21 pass Wright (Casares kick blocked) 0:51.
SB–Wright 5 run (Lawrence 2-point conversion pass intercepted) 4:08.
SB–Lawrence 1 run (Lawrence 2-point conversion pass incomplete) 9:02.
BL–Chandler 2 run (Terrance Wilson 2-point conversion run) 3:25.
SB–Shaquez Wright 21-102 2TDs, Jaylen Lawrence 8-90 1TD, RJ Stallings 11-63, Myles Corbitt 8-28, DeAngilo Drayton 4-16. TOTALS: 52-299 3TDs.
BL–Rickie Smith 21-73 1TD, Terrance Wilson 11-102, Iquavian Tolen 2-93, Jacquiel Chandler 6-24 3TDs. TOTALS: 40-292 4TDs.
SB–Jaylen Lawrence 6-14-55 1TD, 1INT.
BL–Jacquiel Chandler 2-3-16.
SB–RJ Stallings 4-37, Shaquez Wright 2-18 1TD.
BL–Devin Stroman 1-15, Terrance Wilson 1-1.
BL–Dontavious Morris 1-3.