An impressive week one victory over area-power Hibriten by Alexander Central, coupled with Wilkes Central fielding only 21 players due to injuries and low numbers, led most high school football fans to expect a walk over this past Friday night in Moravian Falls.
Someone forgot to tell the Eagles.
Led by JoRaye Morrison’s game-high 185 yards, a powerful rushing attack allowed the Eagles to rest their defense and control the clock for much of the game. But in the end, Alexander Central escaped Wes Steele Stadium with a 28-12 victory.
“Right out of the gate, I’ve got to give credit to (Head Coach) Ron Turner and his Wilkes Central football team tonight,” commented Alexander Central Head Coach Butch Carter after the game. “I think they showed a lot of character and a lot of guts and played extremely hard the entire game. I felt like they took it to us in the first half.”
The game got off to an inauspicious start when on the second play from scrimmage, Wilkes Central’s Josh Pack threw an interception on what appeared to be a busted play for the Eagles. With Alexander Central receiving possession just outside the red zone, at the 26-yard line, the Eagles defense was immediately called in to action.
The Cougars (2-0) quickly moved inside the red zone thanks to rushes from seniors A.J. Miller and Steven Montgomery. With their backs pressed against the wall, the Eagles’ defense stood tall, holding the Cougars out of the end zone and forcing a field goal attempt, and Oscar Lopez’s attempt went wide left.
With 9:28 left in the first quarter, the Eagles took possession of the football — something they would do for the majority of the game.
The Eagles proceeded to march down the field from their own 20, on a 16-play drive that extended into the second quarter. Fourteen of 16 plays were rushing attempts, with one passing attempt and a field goal attempt rounding out the play selection. Morrison carried the ball seven times along with seven attempts for Pack. Neither player had a negative attempt in the drive.
Controlling the game clock was one of the keys to success Turner and his staff had identified in preparation for their matchup against an explosive Alexander Central offense.
The Eagles had a near 17-minute advantage in time of possession.
“We knew we had to control the ball on offense because they’re very good on offense. For us to hold them to what we did is a really good job from our defense,” said Turner.
Despite the dominating fashion, the Eagles came up empty on the drive as Bryan Francis’ field goal attempt to open the second quarter was only inches wide, keeping the scores even at zero.
Alexander Central took advantage quickly, boosted by a 48-yard sprint from quarterback Lance Justice that set the Cougars up at the Eagle 24-yard line. Justice took it in himself three plays later to give the Cougars a 7-0 lead.
The Eagles looked like their third possession would be a short one faced with a third-and-15, thanks to a fumbled snap on first down. That wouldn’t be the case as Pack connected with Ethan Dobson for one of his three receptions of the night — this one for 22 yards and a first down. The Eagles eventually punted, but not before bleeding another four minutes off the clock.
The Cougars again struck fast — this time with a two-play drive for the touchdown. Justice found Josh Abernathy behind the Eagles safeties and he cruised into the end zone for the 56-yard score. Lopez’s extra point would be good, giving the Cougars a 14-0 advantage with 5:22 left in the half.
The Eagles responded on their next drive through the air and on the ground. Wilkes Central put together a nine-play drive that included three completed passes from Pack and 29 yards on the ground from Morrison with final five going for a touchdown.
The extra point attempt was scrubbed thanks to a bad snap but the Eagles had cut into the Cougar lead to eight, heading into halftime.
The Cougars received the ball to start the second half and the Eagles’ defense came out of the break knowing their team needed a stop.
Wilkes Central forced its first three-and-out of the night that, along with a poor punt, set the Eagles up with great field position, at the Cougar 35-yard line.
Morrison put the Eagles on his back on the ensuing drive, gaining 34 yards on seven plays. Facing a fourth-and-goal from the four, Turner called a timeout with 5:28 remaining in the third quarter.
Central’s sixth-year head coach went into his bag of tricks and pulled out a winner on the next play as Pack handed off to Morrison, who looked to be headed for the corner on a halfback sweep.
Instead, the junior took a half step back and found a wide-open Dobson in the end zone for six. The Eagles would go for two and fail, but with 5:13 remaining in the third quarter, the Eagles were right in it, trailing just 14-12.
The Eagle defense came up big again on the next drive, forcing a turnover on downs when the defensive line stuffed Montgomery on fourth-and-three.
With 3:04 remaining in the quarter, Wilkes Central had the ball at their own 45-yard line with a chance to take the lead with a score.
However, it was there that the August temperatures began to weigh heavy on the legs of the Eagles squad. As the Eagles offense began to sputter, cramps began to set in.
There would be no less than five stoppages over the last 15 minutes of play, as players from both sides fell victim to the heat and fatigue. The Eagles would be forced to punt, giving the Cougars the ball back with 1:55 left in the third. The Cougars would score with only 30 seconds remaining in the quarter, thanks to a 52-yard run from Montgomery, increasing the Cougar lead to 21-12.
In the fourth, the Eagles had trouble sustaining drives as the wear and tear of low numbers began to show. Penalties, drops and fumbles began to plague the offense, stalling drives.
Alexander Central capitalized after a Wilkes Central fumble set the Cougars up on the 25-yard line, and Dayente Calhoun ran it in two plays later from the 14 to cap off the scoring.
After the game, Turner had nothing but praise for the gritty, tough performance of the Wilkes Central Eagles.
“We hung with them the whole game. Just by the fourth quarter our kids were exhausted,” said Turner. “We had 21 kids going against 50. We had a bunch of kids cramping up and that was the difference in the second half.”
The Eagles will be at home again this Friday against the Surry Central Golden Eagles while the Cougars will take to the road to face the Statesville Greyhounds in a matchup of unbeatens.
Notes: Pack paced the Eagles’ defense with seven tackles and Ahmad Carlton had six. Wilkes Central’s JV team opened up its season on Thursday with a 28-16 loss to Alexander Central despite 154 passing yards and two touchdowns from C.J. McGill. Carlos Reyes finished with three catches for 99 yards and a touchdown. Aydan Bynum paced the Eagles on the ground with 36 yards on seven carries.