Garrett Gardner had the best birthday present he could ask for Friday night.
The junior defensive lineman was in the right place to complete a third-quarter 59-yard scoop-and-score fumble recovery that was the winning play for Lugoff-Elgin (2-3) in a gritty 14-7 win over Fort Mill (1-4) at Bob Jones Stadium.
The Demons’ defense had pressured Yellow Jackets quarterback Dylan Helms (14-for-31, 92 yards, 1 passing TD) all night. The pressure finally paid off when Helms fumbled on third and 14 late in the third quarter, allowing Gardner to quickly react and lead a pack of Demons into the end zone to open a two-score lead, 14-0.
“I was looking up, and it was right there,” said Gardner. “I was able to react and it was a touchdown. Man, that’s the best birthday gift ever.”
Fort Mill barely avoided being shutout. Cabe Christopher (4-for-50 yards) snagged a 9-yard scoring catch to finish off a 16-play, 81-yard drive with less than 30 seconds left.
But the Yellow Jackets were unable to recover the ensuing pooch kick, allowing the Demons to celebrate the win with an impromptu chorus of “Happy Birthday.”
Lugoff-Elgin quarterback Ryan Griggs (5-for-10, 58 yards) scored the lone touchdown of the first half midway through the second quarter. He bulldozed into the end zone one play after tossing a 33-yard rainbow pass into the red zone to wide receiver Josh Gary.
The Demons botched the ensuing point-after kick, but snap-holder Gary recovered the loose ball, sprinted into the end zone and toppled the pylon on the right sideline to complete an unlikely 2-point conversion.
Fort Mill began the game with four straight 3-and-outs. The Yellow Jackets picked up their initial first down (and broke into Lugoff-Elgin territory for the first time) when Liam Walsh (15-for-57 yards) broke out for a 12-yard carry with 4:29 left in the opening half.
Later that drive, Helms was ripped down by a horse-collar tackle, giving the Yellow Jackets a first down on the opposing 36-yard-line. But Helms was sacked two plays later and the team was forced to punt.
“They manhandled us up front,” said Fort Mill head coach Rob McNeely. “And our kids have to understand, when you get backed in a corner, you have to fight.”
Lugoff-Elgin escaped danger on its final offensive drive of the first half. With less than a minute to go, Griggs had to jump on a high snap that pushed them behind their own 10. And on third-and-19, Fort Mill’s linebacker Miller Shouse smacked Griggs, sending him flying into the Demons’ own end zone, but the referees spotted the ball on the 1-yard line.
“We had a good vantage angle up top,” McNeely said. “I know the refs are trying to do the best they can, but it’s one of those things, man, it’s football.”
Fort Mill got the ball back with 35.7 seconds left in the half. The Yellow Jackets were the beneficiaries of a face mask call, but Helms couldn’t find an open target on the series-ending play.
Fort Mill registered 23 plays in the first half and racked up a total of 26 offensive yards and 3 first downs. They finished with 64 rushing yards on 34 ground attempts.
Helms was sacked four times throughout the game, not including the times Lugoff-Elgin was assessed with a facemask or a horse-collar penalty.
Kicker Alex Bowers was unable to nail a 20-yard chip shot field goal for the Demons with 6.5 seconds left in the first quarter.
TURNING POINT: Fort Mill might have had a chance to recover from Gardner’s play just before the fourth quarter, but the L-E defensive pressure was too much. Helms was nearly intercepted with 2:18 left to play in the third quarter, then suffered back-to-back sacks on second and third down that cut a promising drive.
KEY PERFORMERS: Shouse deserved plenty of plaudits: He sacked Griggs twice, including the near-safety. Shouse followed his second sack by blocking a punt on fourth-and-25 on Lugoff-Elgin’s first possession of the second half, which set up Fort Mill in enemy territory.
But the Yellow Jackets simply couldn’t get anything going on the next drive, and ended up punting.
“We had our chances defensively, too, but we didn’t capitalize on it,” McNeely said.
Jamari Harris was a bulldog for the Demons. He scrambled for a large chunk of his 104 rushing yards on the final L-E drive of the game as the Demons drained the clock.
WORTH NOTING: Lugoff-Elgin and Fort Mill have played each other 20 times. This is just the fourth time the Demons have come away with the win.
NEXT GAME: Fort Mill heads back on the road next week to face York Comprehensive in York.
Lugoff-Elgin returns home to face Rock Hill High.