During his team’s two weeks of preparation for the regular-season finale at arch-rival Mount Airy. East Surry head coach David Diamont told his team that their only chance of beating the Granite Bears was to make the game ugly.
On Friday night, the Cardinals delivered one of the most beautiful ugly performances that anyone could ever hope to see, and wrested a share of the 2016 Northwest 1A Conference championship from the Bears’ claws with a 21-10 victory at Wallace Shelton Stadium.
“These kids worked so hard, I don’t know what to say,” said Diamont. “I told our kids that Mount Airy is a fantastic ball team, and we had to make it an ugly ballgame. Our one chance was to run from tackle to tackle and hope we could block everybody up front and not let them penetrate. We wanted to make it ugly, make it physical.”
East Surry (8-3, 5-1 NW1A) lined up in a double tight end, power running formation on nearly every play of the game, seldom threw the football, and relied on its offensive line to grind down the Mount Airy defense. Meanwhile, the Cardinals’ own defense frequently got the better of the Bears, who gave East Surry a lot of help it didn’t need with poor execution and ill-timed penalties.
“I’ve got some really good offensive linemen, and they take a lot of pride and worked really hard in the wieght room the whole way through,” said Diamont.
The game’s outcome means that Walkertown backs into a three-way tie for the Northwest title, one week after losing 42-14 on the same field where the Cardinals won. Coaches Diamont, Holder and Josh Pardue of the Wolfpack will have a drawing today to determine the Nos. 1-3 seeds for the upcoming 1A state playoffs. Mount Airy is still very likely to play at home in the first round, but lost a chance to be the No. 1 overall seed in the West with the loss.
East Surry was off last week, when Mount Airy and Walkertown played each other with first place on the line. However, it wasn’t lost on them that they could still defend a share of their 2014 and 2015 NW1A crowns by upsetting the Bears — a fact that was almost an afterthought in most analysis of the season. The Cardinals collected a forfeit win last week and continued prepping for their shot at the Bears.
Except for the first few minutes of each half, the hosts were thoroughly outplayed by their guests all night.
“They just whipped us, they really did,” said Mount Airy coach Kelly Holder, whose team dropped to 10-1, 5-1 with the loss. “We didn’t play very well, and that starts from the top down. We have to fix that. This is not the end of our season, but we have to play a lot better.”
Mount Airy started off well. The Bears’ defense forced a three-and-out, and they took over on offense at their 34-yard line two minutes into the contest. On the second play from scrimmage, quarterback Jackson Smith called his own number, took it up the middle, then cut to his left and raced 63 yards to the East Surry 2.
Then came the first sign that the Cardinals would not just roll over for the state’s third-ranked 1A team. On the next play, Ian Holder took the ball in the Wildcat formation and was thrown for a five-yard loss. Two plays later, on third down, Smith tried the same play that had netted him the 63 yards, but East sniffed it out this time. The Bears had to settle for a 24-yard field goal and a 3-0 lead.
The Cardinals came up empty on their next drive, but ate up nearly seven minutes off the clock before punting it back to Mount Airy deep in its own territory. The strategy for East Surry was already clear to the capacity crowd — the Cardinals intended to control possession of the ball and the game clock.
The Bears helped them out by keeping the ball for less than two minutes before punting it back to the Cardinals a few seconds into the second quarter.
East Surry responded with a 15-play, 74-yard drive that began with 11:44 on the game clock and ended with just 3:38 on it. The Cardinals converted three third downs and one fourth down along the way, and took a 7-3 lead when Joey Ray crashed into the end zone from the 1-yard line on second-and-goal. Ryan Sutterby kicked the point-after to give the visitors a 7-3 lead.
The drive epitomized exactly what Diamont said his team had to do. East Surry actually gained just 59 yards on those 15 snaps; the other 15 came on a personal foul committed by the Bears. In those eight minutes, the Cardinals ran three more plays than the Mount Airy offense ran in the entire first half (12).
Mount Airy was down, but not out. The Bears began the second half as impressively as they had the first. Ian Holder snagged a pass for 14 yards and a first down at the hosts’ 49, and then ran the ball for 13 yards, moving the chains down to the East 38. Smith ran for 10 yards on a keeper, and then the Cardinals made one of their few mistakes all night, getting flagged for 15 yards for piling on. It took four plays to cover the last 13 yards, but with exactly nine minutes left in the first half, Holder scored out of the Wildcat from two yards out to give the Bears a 10-7 lead.
Was the game now going to follow its predicted script, in which NCpreps.com’s Simmons Ratings had tabbed Mount Airy as a 29-point favorite? Not hardly.
East Surry wasn’t interested in any predictions. The Cardinals took the fight right back to the Bears, marching 72 yards in the other direction on a drive that ate up 6:09. Once again, the Bears helped out with an ill-advised personal foul that moved the ball to the Mount Airy 28. It took five more plays from that point on, with Ray dragging two Bears across the goal line from five yards out with 2:51 to play in the third quarter. Sutterby hit the PAT to make it 14-10 in favor of the four-touchdown underdogs.
“We told Joey that he had to be a tough, strong runner tonight, not get outside and juke and jab,” said Diamont. “He really was lights-out tonight, ran the ball well from tackle to tackle.”
The Cardinals’ defense delivered and a three-and-out, and after a short punt by the Bears, East Surry was back in business at the Mount Airy 49-yard line with 1:56 left in the third. On first down, quarterback Trevor Hauser rolled out and hit Blake Marion with a pass down the 30. From there, the Cardinals went back to ground-and-pound, with Ray and Jose Juarez on the ground. The third quarter bled into the fourth as East Surry marched toward the goal line, but then they faced third-and-7 at the 16. Ray got the call on the sweep to his left, and the Cardinals executed their blocks perfectly as the junior running back romped into the end zone. With 10:12 left in the game, East Surry led 21-10 and could smell the upset…or at least an upset to everyone but themselves.
The Cardinals’ defense did the rest, as Mount Airy abandoned any pretense of running the ball for the rest of the night. The Bears’ best chance came on their first play after the score, when Malik Frost got open behind the defense and Smith put the ball on the money, but Frost couldn’t get his hands on it. They ended up going three-and-out and then the Cardinals did, but just 7:18 remained when Mount Airy got it back. This time, they reached the East 33, and then Smith overthrew Tanner Jackson, who was open for a sure touchdown. On fourth down, they threw again, and the Cardinals’ Stephen Creech broke it up.
“We couldn’t do anything right on offense,” said Coach Holder. “We couldn’t throw it, we couldn’t catch it, we were going the wrong place up front. We don’t have any excuse.”
Mount Airy got the ball back again and crossed into East territory with time under four minutes to play, but again lost it own downs, this time at the 43. The Bears didn’t see the ball again until just 37 seconds were left.
The teams will learn their playoff seeds next Saturday when the brackets are released by the NCHSAA. The regular season has been extended by a week due to teams needing to make up games in the East because of Hurricane Matthew.
Reach John via Twitter at @johncate73.