The play worked so beautifully, Greg Ruff said he started crying.
On the first snap of South Pointe’s overtime possession Friday night against Belton-Honea Path, Stallion receiver Josh Wilkes found himself so wide open that he nearly set Ruff, the junior quarterback, to waterworks.
Ruff instead lobbed a ball into Wilkes’ arms for a 10-yard touchdown, setting off wild celebrations as the Stallions (10-3) nosed past the Bears for a 23-20 win and a spot in the 3A Upper State championship game next Friday at A.C. Flora.
“All the stuff we’ve been through this year, this game, I’m just real proud of my team,” said Ruff, who threw two touchdown passes and had a 67-yard touchdown run.
The loss was a bitter remnant for the Bears (9-4), whose freshman kicker Lance Jones nailed a 21-yard field goal to put the game into overtime.
“This one hurts. It’s gonna take a while to get over,” said Belton-Honea Path coach Russell Blackston. “Any time you get this close, it’s tough.”
For the second straight week, an opponent’s staunch defending made the going tough for the South Pointe offense, but for the sixth straight week, the South Pointe defense was tougher. The Stallions intercepted five Belton-Honea Path passes and held the Bears to 183 total yards of offense. South Pointe’s defense has forced 16 turnovers in the last three contests, and has now won eight straight games since a three-game losing swoon back in September.
“Hats off to the defense, they did a great job of just playing physical and taking care of the run,” said South Pointe coach Strait Herron. “Overall, we did what we wanted to do. Our defense really kept us in the game.”
After Jones’ field goal sent the game to overtime, each side got four downs from the 10-yard line. South Pointe kept the visitors out of the end zone and the Bears settled for a 19-yard Jones field goal.
That left the Stallions needing a touchdown to win, and they found a pot of gold on the first try. Wilkes, normally lined up down by the numbers, was hidden at the edge of the offensive line and ran across the formation into wide open acreage.
“We was trying to get him open to run the corner route,” said Ruff. “It worked out for us.”
“There was two receivers over there and it was a just a busted play right there, a busted play,” said Blackston.
No one was surprised when the game went to overtime. Both sides missed glaring opportunities in the passing game, none worse than when Belton-Honea Path completely duped the South Pointe defense on a fake field goal with 9 minutes, 25 seconds left in the game, only for the Bear receiver standing alone in the end zone to bobble and drop the touchdown pass.
That play would have given Belton-Honea Path a one-touchdown lead. Ruff then heaved an interception on the very next play, but when the Bears threatened again, Devion Williams made the second of his two interceptions to avert the threat. Marveon Mobley, Ty Barber and Nick McCloud were the other Stallion interceptors.
A lively second half erased memories of a dour and slogging first half, in which South Pointe took a 7-0 lead in the first 23 seconds.
Ruff threw incomplete on first down, and looked set to throw on second, before pulling the ball down and racing away for a 67-yard score down the right sideline. That was the high-water mark; the Stallions would finish the first half with just 125 yards of offense, 67 coming on Ruff’s touchdown jaunt.
What followed for South Pointe was a barrage of three-and-outs, dropped touchdown passes and punts. The Stallion defense ably obstructed Belton-Honea Path in the first half, holding Blackston’s team to just 47 total yards, including 22 rushing yards on 17 carries.
But the visiting Bears, who ran for nearly 400 yards last week, gradually wrestled control of field position and it finally paid off when Jyquis Callahan drove his blocker into South Pointe kicker Jason Hutchens and blocked his punt near the Stallion goal-line. Mobley recovered in the end zone and churned his way out to the 2-yard line. Belton-Honea Path made the hosts pay the next snap of the ball, O’Ryan Warren driving in for the touchdown and a 7-7 tie with 3 minutes, 7 seconds left in the first half.
Belton-Honea Path took a 14-7 lead with just over four minutes left in the third quarter, Jake Cade returning a punt about 75 yards for a touchdown, punishing the Stallions’ second costly miscue on a punt situation.
But South Pointe was quickly level, Ruff hopping around in the pocket to buy time before finding Shawn McCullough wide open on the right sideline. He took the pass 29 yards to the end zone for a 14-14 score, setting up the tear-jerking drama that followed.