Come halftime of a game on the verge of a possible upset, Clover entered the locker room stunned.
For the first time all season, the Blue Eagles weren’t safe. Units weren’t clicking. There was miscommunication between senior quarterback Gabe Carroll and his receivers. The defense, although it had largely won the battle on the line, had been plagued by two muffed punts and a Nathan Mahaffey 96-yard touchdown run.
But something happened at halftime that changed the game’s trajectory, said Clover receiver Zion Robbins — who ended the game with four receptions for 78 yards and two touchdowns: “In the first half, it was pretty tough,” he said after his team’s 42-27 win over Nation Ford on Friday night. “But then we remembered who we were, put up the points, and got the ‘W.’”
In the first quarter, Nation Ford capped off a drive blessed by a 25-yard catch by Shrine Bowl selection and senior running back Mahaffey with a 41-yard field goal from Quinn Castner.
Nation Ford’s 3-0 lead was the first time Clover has trailed all season.
On the ensuing drive, Clover’s B.J. Tims took a handoff and burst between the tackles for a 73-yard touchdown run. 7-3, Clover.
Nation Ford then scored 14 unanswered points: one came after a muffed punt by Clover’s Jaylin Lane and a one-yard high-flying jump past the goal line by Mahaffey; the other came in the form of a 96-yard touchdown rush by Mahaffey off a lateral. 17-7, Nation Ford.
But the Blue Eagles soon responded with two touchdowns of their own — both 20-plus-yard passes by Gabe Carroll.
After another Nation Ford field goal, Clover entered the break up 21-20.
That said, things changed after the break. Clover only allowed seven points and scored 21 — two of which were two more 20-plus yard passes by Carroll.
Carroll ended his night 21-for-30 for 282 yards and four touchdowns. His favorite target, Jaylin Lane, ended his night with seven receptions for 111 yards and two touchdowns.
“It was rocky at the beginning,” Carroll said with a smile, “but Coach Lane got us right and talked us through stuff, and we ended up winning.”
Head coach Brian Lane said that he preached toughness at halftime.
“We just broke it down on what we do,” Lane said. “We say that tough people win. We talked about being tough and said: ‘This is where you want to be. You always want to be in a fight. I want to see what you’re made of.’
“We talked about just having some internal fortitude, and they came out and did not stop and didn’t relinquish the lead in the second half.”
Nation Ford head coach Michael Allen said that he was proud of the way his team fought.
“It was a great football game,” he said. “(Clover) seized the moment at times, and we didn’t. We had our opportunities. We’ll learn from it.”
For the first time all season, Clover was never safe — the outcome was never certain.
At times, the Blue Eagles looked like they had all season: Carroll connected with Lane seven times — twice for 20-plus yard touchdowns. Outside of Mahaffey’s 96-yard dash, Clover’s defense only allowed 50 rushing yards.
At other times, though — when defensive stands were foiled by penalties, when the offense was forced to stay on the sideline because of three separate muffed punts — the team looked unusually vulnerable.
But come the final whistle, with “Sweet Caroline” blaring over Clover’s Memorial Stadium speakers after the victory that kept Clover unbeaten, Coach Lane didn’t dwell on what happened.
Instead, when asked if this win was initial proof that this team could “go the distance,” he focused on the immediate future.
“Well, we got to play Northwestern next week, and that’s the distance right now,” he said.
“The distance is Friday.”