Prep Football: Salisbury 43, Thomasville 39
By Ryan Bisesi
SALISBURY – Needing to reach the end zone with 32 seconds left was an awfully tall ladder to climb for Salisbury.
All Justin Ruffin needed was a hook.
The deceptive hitch-and-pitch 29-yard play from Brian Bauk to Jon Mark Petty to Ruffin with 4.1 seconds left ended with Ruffin tip-toeing the sideline and diving over the pylon and into the Central Carolina Conference lead in a theatrical finish at Ludwig Stadium. Before Salisbury officially recorded a 43-39 win, three touchdowns were scored in the final 1:13, two of which came thanks to Ruffin. It was a Friday Night Lights-esque final two minutes, where Odessa, Tx. transferred to Rowan County.
“When coach Pinyan called it, my eyes got big,” Ruffin said of the hook-and-ladder. “It was good how Jon Mark sold it too. He set it up, I just went where I had to go.”
Ruffin had to go everywhere. His night included a career-best 172 yards receiving and 90 yards rushing and four touchdowns, including one on a 90-yard kickoff return. His 98-yard pass caught over the middle gave Salisbury a 35-31 lead, its first of the night, with 1:13 left. Petty was there again providing a key downfield block that allowed Ruffin to break free on the play. The senior also went over 2,000 yards rushing for his career to pick up the Hornets, who were without injured Keion Adams.
“I’m speechless,” Ruffin said. “You can’t even explain how this feels.”
Right after Salisbury finally got ahead, Thomasville back Gabe Brockett got the ball to the Salisbury 25 on a 41-yard burst and then inside the red zone on a 15-yard carry. Two plays later tight end Dezmond Wilson caught a 7-yard TD pass, the Bulldogs’ only reception of the night, with 32.9 seconds left as Thomasville regained the lead.
“We’re just going back-and-forth,” Salisbury coach Joe Pinyan said. “There was excitement over here then excitement on their side. We’re going back and forth. It was a crazy atmosphere.”
In what was hailed as a de facto Central Carolina Conference title game, the win game Salisbury (7-2, 4-0) a one-game lead on Thomasville (3-7, 3-1) going into the final week of the regular season. Two of the Hornets’ three losses came via Thomasville last year, including the season-ender in the third round of the playoffs.
“I’m actually pretty bad at pitching the ball, but it worked out tonight,” Petty said. “Thomasville’s a big rival for us and it’s great to beat them.”
In a game where the Hornets allowed Brockett 366 yards and four touchdowns on the ground they finally picked up by a big defensive stand late. Thomasville QB Isiah Marsh took three straight knees at the Salisbury 1 to force the Hornets to eat two timeouts.
On fourth and goal, Marsh was halted with 1:52 left. Two plays later, Bauk found Ruffin behind the secondary to put the Hornets ahead.
“We were trying to milk the clock because we weren’t stopping them in the second half,” Thomasville assistant Dickie Cline said. “It didn’t work out.”
Brockett’s two-point run made it 39-36 and a squibb kick was in order. However, the ensuing kickoff went right to Ruffin, who took it to the Thomasville 40.
“We meant to pooch kick it and he kicked it right to the man,” Cline said. “Kids are kids sometimes.”
After an 11-yard toss to Ruffin and an incomplete pass, 11.5 seconds remained. Bauk found Petty 20 yards out from the goal line and tossed it to Ruffin moments before being tackled.
“It’s a play we run every day in practice,” Pinyan said. “What an effort.”
Salisbury ran just 16 plays in the first half to Thomasville’s 40 as the Hornets trailed 17-7 at the break. Brockett scored on runs of 1 and 5 yards. Ruffin’s kickoff return provided the only points of the half and Rob Styers 37-yard field goal in the final minute gave Thomasville a double-digit lead.
“We could have folded the tent at halftime,” Pinyan said. “Our defense couldn’t stop them and we didn’t have the ball enough to know what to do.”
Bauk kept it around the right edge and went 58 yards for a touchdown to cut it to 17-14. Everytime the Hornets got close, Brockett was there to answer, With a staggering 55 carries, his longest of the game came on a 78-yard touchdown romp 15 seconds after the Hornets pulled within 24-21. Max Allen scored on a 2-yard push to pull it to 31-28 with 9;28 left.
“We’re on top of the world,” Petty said. “Tonight was just crazy.”