Prep Football Playoffs: Cardinal Gibbons 21, Carson 15
By Bret Strelow
RALEIGH ó Cardinal Gibbons defensive lineman Eric Albright drilled Carson quarterback Zack Gragg from behind as he released a fourth-down throw in the final minute. The ball fluttered harmlessly through the air before falling well short of the intended target.Gragg remained seated on the muddy field for several seconds, and tight end Dylan Eagle rushed over to help him up. Jacorian Brown and Justice Schenck offered assistance.
A collective effort put ninth-seeded Carson in position to beat the Crusaders, the top-seeded team in the Eastern half of the 3A bracket, but a fourth-quarter comeback gave Gibbons a 21-15 win in a second-round playoff game Friday night.
“It’s tough,” Carson defensive lineman Micah Honeycutt said. “We had them where we wanted them, and we let them off the hook.”
The Cougars (7-6) entered the fourth quarter with a 15-6 lead, and Gibbons (12-1) scored two touchdowns in a span of 1 minute, 39 seconds early in the final period.
Carson’s last drive began at its 20-yard line with 2:17 remaining. The Cougars crossed midfield when Gragg completed an 18-yard pass to Cody Clanton on fourth-and-14, and they reached the 38 on an 8-yard reception by Zach Smith.
A spike stopped the clock with 39 seconds left, and the Crusaders nearly picked off a third-down pass. Albright’s hit on Gragg ended the upset bid, and many of the Cougars were understandably emotional afterward.
“Unless you win the state championship, that’s how it ends,” Carson coach Mark Woody said. “We have nothing to be ashamed of; they left it on the field. I’m proud of our kids.”
Clanton (144 yards on six catches) completed his junior season with 1,096 yards, and classmate Shaun Warren (125 yards on 24 carries) finished the year with 1,977 yards.
Carson’s offense lost three fumbles inside the Crusaders’ 30-yard line, and a fumbled kickoff return set up the go-ahead TD for Gibbons.
The Cougars stretched their third-quarter lead to nine points when, for the second time in the game, a snap sailed over 6-foot-6 punter Andrew Shafer’s head. A safety gave Carson a two-score edge, and it advanced to the Gibbons 28 before Jeremy Donabedian recovered a Warren fumble.
“We had some opportunities to put it in the end zone, and we didn’t do it,” Woody said. ‘The conditions were real bad out there, but they had to play on it, too. We couldn’t get our running game going consistently, but they had something to do with that. They’re big and tough up front.”
Gibbons quarterback Doug Burton went right on an option play, cut back toward the left sideline and scored on a 62-yard keeper with 10:13 left in the game.
Warren fumbled the kickoff at the 25-yard line, and the Crusaders took their first lead with 8:42 remaining on an 11-yard catch by Shafer, the son of a former Michigan State offensive lineman.
“Our offense at times has looked good, and at times we’ve struggled,” Gibbons coach Michael Sheehan said. “Our defense has kept us in every single game.”
Warren lost the ball at the end of a 15-yard run late in the first quarter, and Matt Skowron recovered it at the Gibbons 5. Carson forced a three-and-out, regained possession at the Crusaders’ 45 and scored on a reception that moved Clanton past 1,000 yards for the season.
“We came out really strong, and the defense was phenomenal,” Clanton said. “We put it in, and that got us going.”
Gibbons had to punt from its 34 after another three-and-out, and the snap sent Shafer scurrying back toward the end zone. He grabbed the ball at the 4 and kicked it to the 32. Carson reached the 20, but linebacker Connor Prevost recovered an errant pitch.
Burton fired a 38-yard touchdown pass to James Hickey with 2:21 left in the half, and Honeycutt blocked the extra point to preserve a 6-6 tie.
The Cougars answered with an eight-play, 72-yard drive. Clanton outfought two defenders on a 36-yard reception, and Carson faced a fourth-and-3 from the 11 with 33 seconds left before halftime.
Gragg looked toward Eagle, who was triple-teamed, and found fullback Clifford Long open in the right flat. He bowled over a defender and scored.
A quick-strike series near the end of the second half didn’t produce a similarly satisfying result.
“I thought it was going to work out,” Gragg said, “but it doesn’t always.”
NOTE: Gibbons will play host to fifth-seeded Eastern Alamance, a 35-7 winner over West Craven, in the third round.
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