PILOT MOUNTAIN — East Surry sent Starmount packing for the second time this season with a 21-14 victory over the Rams in the first round of the North Carolina High School Athletic Association 1AA Playoffs.
The Cardinals’ first victory of the season came at home against Starmount, so it was only fitting that the Cards did the same for their first playoff matchup. However, this game was much different than the previous meeting.
For the first time this season, East Surry gained more yards from passing (105) than rushing (85). Before tonight, the closest margin between passing and rushing yards was on August 18 in the season opener against East Wilkes. East Surry ran for 54 more yards than it passed for on that night, but also lost. However, it all came out good when quarterback Stephen Gosnell threw a 21-yard touchdown pass to Nick Hicks with 33 seconds remaining and lifted the Cardinals into a spot in the seocnd round of the playoffs.
The Cardinals (8-4) will face another rematch of an early-season game next week, when East Surry travels to East Wilkes (9-2). The Wilkes County Cardinals beat East 36-20 in the season opener for both teams back on Aug. 18.
The difference in East’s strategy in its second meeting with Starmount was evident from the start. Quarterback Stephen Gosnell made short runs on first and second down of the Cards’ opening drive. Gosnell then took to the air with a 25-yard pass to Quincy Smith.
East Surry soon took to the air once more, with a 33-yard touchdown pass Gosnell to Austin Pardue with less than three minutes off the clock.
Both teams showed up defensively to keep their opponent out of the red zone. The game featured a number of three-and-outs and both teams were held well under their average performance offensively.
The Rams’ first drive would last just short of two minutes. A quarterback keep by Patrick Usher into traffic followed by a Nik Pardue run that East Surry’s Mitchell Edwards stuffed put Starmount in a third-and-long situation.
Usher took to the air on third down, but had his pass intercepted by Smith. East Surry failed to capitalize on decent field position with runs from Gosnell and Joey Ray stopped by the Rams’ Gatlin Welborn. East Surry punted on fourth-and-5 with 5:30 remaining in the quarter.
Starting from its own 48, Starmount’s struggles to move the chains continued. Welborn ran into the huge frame of Jefferson Boaz for a loss on first down. Peyton Mullins had a decent gain but failed to reach the first-down markers due to the loss on the previous play.
Usher connected with receiver Austin Wilfong on what would be his only completion of the night. Wilfong was stopped immediately by Edwards, who tied for the most tackles for the Cardinals with six, forcing a punt on fourth down.
The Rams’ pass rush continued to impress, however, forcing a fumble on Gosnell on the Cards’ first play. Gosnell quickly snatched the ball up to continue the drive. The Cardinals picked up a first down but then were forced to punt as the second quarter began.
The quarter opened with Starmount getting its initial first down of the game on a big run from Usher, putting the Rams in Cardinal territory. Usher continued to make short runs before breaking free, running for 33 yards, and diving to the end zone.
Officials determined that East Surry’s Smith forced Usher out of bounds on the one-yard line. Mullins would leave no doubt, however, by barrelling through to even the score at 7-7.
The second quarter was certainly an interesting one. East Surry’s drive following the Rams’ touchdown ended in less than two minutes. The same applied to Starmount’s ensuing possession.
Both teams hammered the ball through the middle of the field. Then Boaz was intercepted by Carson Hemric.
Starmount broke the streak of no first downs with a run from Wilfong. The drive wouldn’t amount to much, though, with the Rams turning the ball over on downs after Usher’s pass sailed over the head of Mullins.
The remainder of the half saw the score remain the same. Each team would have two possessions in the final four minutes. East Surry was intercepted and had a three-and-out, while Starmount was intercepted again, this time by Austin Pardue, and then failed to move the ball as time expired.
Both defenses failed to budge into the second quarter on back-to-back three-and-outs. Usher and Mullins finally got a first down for the Rams with just under eight minutes remaining in the third quarter.
It would be the only first down of the drive, however, as Usher was sacked by Edwards on first down. Starmount made it within one yard of moving the chains, but punted away on fourth down.
East Surry started on the Starmount 43 off the punt. Joey Ray ran for two consecutive first downs. Another run from Ray and a Gosnell pass to Austin Pardue put the Cards in the red zone.
Ray ran the ball three times in a row, but was held up by Antonio Lopez of Starmount to force fourth-and-4. Starmount was caught offsides to put East inside the 10. Ray thought he reached the end zone shortly after, but the referees decided otherwise and flagged him for arguing.
The Cardinals continued to run the ball with Gosnell and Ray, but failed to score before the third quarter ended. It wouldn’t be until the fourth quarter that Ray was able to break through into the end zone to put East up 14-7.
Within 90 seconds after the Cardinals’ go-ahead touchdown, Starmount was in the red zone due to runs from Mullins and Ethan Barnes. Time continued to shed off the clock as the East Surry defense held up the Rams’ attempts to score and eventually suffer a turnover on downs.
East Surry tried to use Joey Ray to chip away at the clock, but had to throw on third-and-17. Though not getting the first down, the clock was now under five minutes.
Fighting against a tough East Surry defense as well as the clock, Barnes broke tackle after tackle to reach the red zone. It was Mullins who eventually tied the game at 14 on a 10-yard TD run with 1:53 to play.
But the Cardinals wouldn’t accept overtime. Ray and Gosnell ran down the field moving the chains and running out of bounds. With 33 seconds left, it would be a pass from Gosnell to Nick Hicks to clinch a victory for East Surry and set them up with a rematch against East Wilkes in the second round.
Reach Cory on Twitter @MrCoryLeeSmith