WEST JEFFERSON—Twenty years ago nearly to the day, East Wilkes used an explosive offense to spoil an Ashe County school’s Homecoming.
Friday night, the Cardinals did it again, on a different field in a slightly different way against that school’s consolidated successor.
Bryce Vestal threw three touchdown passes, Austin Jolly scored three touchdowns and the Cardinals used two dominant quarters in a 54-21 win over Ashe County at Husky Stadium.
It was East Wilkes’ first road win ever against the Huskies and its first road win against an Ashe County school since beating Beaver Creek 44-14 in 1996. It’s also the most points the Cardinals have ever scored against the Huskies.
East Wilkes won its sixth straight game and improved to 7-1, 4-0 in the Mountain Valley Conference. The Cardinals remain in a first-place tie with Wilkes Central, which beat Alleghany Friday night.
Ashe County lost its third straight game and fell to 2-6, 1-3 in the conference. The Huskies, who finished in a three-way tie for second place a season ago, fall into a tie for fifth place with Starmount.
In a wide-open, if uneven first half, East Wilkes snapped a 7-7 tie by scoring three touchdowns in a span of nine plays.
Playing without running back Deven Couch, who was out with an injury, the Cardinals ran for only 26 yards before halftime. They made up for it with a big-play passing attack.
Huskies quarterback Colin Ellis scored on a 1-yard run to tie the game 7-7 with 9:58 to play in the first half.
Two plays later, Vestal hit Damien Reid on a slant pattern and Reid slipped a tackle from Kia Christopherson on a 64-yard touchdown reception. Carlos Aquino added the extra point to give the Cardinals a 14-7 lead.
Three plays into their next possession, Vestal threw to Jared Wood down the right sideline. With both a step and a 6-inch height advantage on Simon Houck, Wood caught the pass in stride to complete a second 64-yard scoring play and build the lead to 20-7.
And one play after an exchange of punts, Vestal scrambled and threw to Jolly, who caught the pass on the run in front of teammate Jared Poplin near the sideline, then turned upfield. The 58-yard play gave the Cardinals a 26-7 halftime lead.
“It was important (to score early),” said J.K. Adkins, the East Wilkes coach. “We didn’t want this game to be tight, because they can score quick.
“I never did feel comfortable until the last four minutes of the game.”
Vestal, who also scored East Wilkes’ first touchdown, threw for 186 yards on those three scoring plays and did what his counterpart in Ellis has been doing all season.
In his last two games, Ellis has thrown for 610 yards and four touchdowns and rushed for 294 yards and three more touchdowns. The senior accounted for 90 percent of his team’s offense in that span and has earned the praise of his coach.
Against the Cardinals, Ellis was held to 170 yards passing, but played without two of his top receivers in Judd Price and Dante Shuler, who are both out with injuries.
“I think he’s the best offensive football player in the conference,” Brian Hampton, the Ashe County coach, said of Ellis. “I’m biased, but really, to have lost the weapons he’s lost and to still have the numbers he’s got, that’s impressive.”
Slowing Ellis and the Huskies’ pass-first air raid offense was the latest challenge for the Cardinals, who are the top scoring defense in the conference and the only team to have given up fewer than 100 points.
“From playing against Colin last year, I’d say he’s the hardest quarterback to defend, because of his ability to run and he has a pretty good arm too,” said senior defensive back Weston Miller. “He does a lot of things that are really hard to stop. Even if you do cover great, he still has the ability to get out of the pocket and make a play on you.
“Our plan coming in was just to man up with the receivers and let our defensive line get after him.”
Ellis completed 14 of 39 passes and had 201 yards of total offense, but was sacked five times and threw two interceptions.
“Any time you can put pressure on a quarterback who can run, you have to cover for less time, so it’s easier to stay with the receiver,” Miller said, “especially receivers of the high caliber that they have.
“As long as we can get that rush and keep him contained, it makes his life really, really hard.”
East Wilkes rushed for 291 yards in the second half and scored on its first three possessions to put the game out of reach.
In a 21-point third quarter, Jolly scored on a 15-yard run, Jayveon Ross had a 30-yard burst up the middle and Reid scored on a toss sweep.
Ellis capped the Huskies’ best drive of the second half with a 7-yard touchdown pass to Grant Thompson. Ellis’ 10-yard run, on a short drive set up by a bad snap on a punt, cut the lead to 47-21.
Jolly’s second rushing touchdown, a 34-yard run, set the final margin.
“Defensively we played with great effort,” Adkins said, “and that’s one of the things we were looking for. Rushing the passer is a tough deal. You may go eight or nine times and not catch a sniff, but that 10th time might be the golden one.
“You have to be mentally tough to push yourself to rush the passer consistently.”
East Wilkes’ last win against an Ashe County school in Ashe County came before Beaver Creek, Ashe Central and Northwest Ashe consolidated in the late 1990s.
Quarterback Bradley Hayes scored three touchdowns in that 1996 game, one coming on a 34-yard return of his first career interception. Travis Walker scored a touchdown on offense and had an interception on defense, and Justin Call had two interceptions. Call also kicked a field goal and five extra points. The Cardinals rushed for 376 yards against the Beavers.
Hayes and Walker are current East Wilkes assistant coaches, and Call is the athletic director and boys basketball coach.
And while the Ashe Central and Northwest Ashe facilities found new uses—Northwest Ashe, in Warrensville, is now Ashe County Middle School—Beaver Creek did not. According to Marc Payne, who grew up near Beaver Creek and played and coached basketball there, the site—which is less than three miles from the current high school—was razed shortly after consolidation to make way for an industrial park. Payne is Ashe County’s athletic director.
Notes: Combined with a 56-7 win over Elkin last Monday, East Wilkes has scored 50 or more points in back-to-back games for the first time since 2010…. Vess Bullins had interceptions on back-to-back possessions. On the first, he jumped with the taller Christopherson and took the ball away, using only his left hand…. Brannon Smoot, Adam Holbrook, Mason Hartley and Cody Lovelace had sacks…. Sydney Kate Grubb was crowned as Ashe County’s Homecoming queen.