High school football: Slow start, but Falcons stay unbeaten in NPC

Published 12:00 am Saturday, April 3, 2021

By Mike London


MOUNT ULLA — Time of possession can be overrated.

Carson snapped the ball for 72 plays on Friday, while West Rowan ran just 31.

But the Falcons dominated after the first 10 minutes and won 48-28 on Senior Night in Mount Ulla.

“Turnovers and their big pass plays were the story,” Carson head coach Daniel Crosby said. “We lost the turnover battle again, and it’s tough to beat good football teams when that happens.”

Both quarterbacks had strong statistical nights. Carson senior Alex London put the ball in the air 30 times, including 20 first-half attempts. He completed 17 and threw for 241 yards. He hit Brodie Johnson for two touchdowns. He found Jake Harris five times and completed four to Emory Taylor.

West junior QB Noah Loeblein threw only a dozen times but amassed 248 passing yards. He accounted for four huge plays, deep TD connections with Andrew Kennerly (twice) and Peter Williams-Simpson, plus a 50-yard strike to Damon Phillippe that set up a score.

Michael Gonsalves was also a story. A running back-turned-linebacker who once looked like a future star for Carson, he has played for West the last two seasons.

West head coach Louis Kraft sent Gonsalves out for the pre-game coin toss as a solo captain.

“A reward for him for all his hard work and coming back from an ACL,” Kraft said. “He missed the Carson game last season when he was hurt, so this one meant a lot to him. It was an emotional game for him.”

Gonsalves did some racking and sacking on defense and West put him in the backfield to power in a couple of short rushing TDs. Gonsalves also broke loose on a 62-yard jaunt to set up a touchdown. He looked sharp enough with the ball in his hands that West (4-2, 4-0) may explore using him some in that role against Statesville in next week’s game to decide the North Piedmont Conference championship. Gonsalves is a powerful 215 pounds and provides a different dynamic than the Falcons’ smaller backs.

Before turnovers and injuries mounted, Carson (2-4, 1-3) looked terrific in the early going.

West went three-and-out to start the game. Carson then pieced together a textbook drive, 67 yards in 10 plays. London completed five passes on the march, and the Cougars mixed in runs from CP Pyle. Carter Dowd got the TD from the 1, Andrew Beaver kicked the point, and the Cougars led 7-0.

West didn’t go far on its second possession — Austin Cook stuffed a third-and-4 run — and the Cougars went right back to work. A couple of Pyle runs netted a first down before London spotted Johnson running free through the West secondary for a 55-yard touchdown. Carson had just completed a short pass to Johnson, who did a good job of selling that he was repeating the same pattern.

“The cornerback jumped up and I ran by him, and then I saw there was no safety,” Johnson said. “Then I just had to make sure I caught it.”

Johnson caught it. Big Zeek Biggers, the Georgia Tech signee, blocked the PAT, but it was 13-0 Cougars, and West fans, well aware Carson had beaten the Falcons only once in the history of the world, were getting antsy.

“We played our best 10 minutes of the season at the start,” Crosby said. “Short week of preparation after we played Statesville on Monday, and I can’t tell you how proud I was of our start. Our guys were ready to play.”

West’s next possession was critical and pivotal. Cayleb Brawley moved the chains for a third-down conversion. Then Akin Robinson got 6 yards on two carries to set up third-and-4 from the Carson 48.

That’s when Loeblein threw the first of his three TD passes. It came in the closing seconds of the first quarter. That pass to Kennerly changed everything.

“Carson came out and punched us in the mouth and we knew we hadn’t played close to our ability,” Loeblein said. “We needed something to get us going. Our offensive line gave me the time to make a good throw, and Andrew was faster than the guy they had covering him.”

Kennerly is faster than most people. He would get another chance to show his wheels before it was over.

The energy from that ice-breaking touchdown spilled over into West’s defensive effort. That unit got its first stop on a third-down sack by Alijah Gray, and momentum started swinging toward the guys in light blue.

“On our sideline, even at 13-0, there was never a doubt,” Kraft said.

Loeblein got a second-quarter drive started for the Falcons by scrambling for a first down. On a second-and-7, he made his 50-yard connection with Phillippe to transport the ball into the red zone. Gonsalves barged into the end zone from the 4, and Juan Arteaga’s PAT kick put West ahead for the first time at 14-13, 3:23 before halftime.

That was the start of a nightmarish couple of minutes for the Cougars, awful minutes that knocked them out of the game.

On Carson’s first snap after falling behind, Pyle was hit by the 330-pound Biggers and 300-pound John Noble. The ball squirted free and Ashton Matthews recovered for the Falcons at the Carson 7. That was Pyle’s last carry of the night. He’d been a big factor in Carson’s offense to that point with steady rushing gains, plus three catches for 34 yards.

“CP’s back tightened up on him,” Crosby said. “We’ve gotten banged up this year, but not as bad as tonight. CP, (defensive end) Andrew Rollins, we lost a starting corner. Those things added up.”

After the fumble, West quickly rammed in the second Gonsalves TD for 20-13. Aaron Bradshaw blocked the PAT, but then West’s defense struck again.

On second-and-10 from the Carson 32, London was running for his life from multiple Falcons when DB Martrez Smith came crashing into him near the West sideline. The hit was loud; the ball went flying. West DB Nigel McManus gathered in a good hop like a shortstop and was off to the races. No one came close to catching him.

“Kind of the way it’s been for us all season,” Johnson said. “The bounces, the tipped passes, the luck hasn’t gone our way often , but we’ve never stopped trying to fight through it. Now it’s hard to believe we’ve only got one game left in our season.

West had scored three TDs in three minutes. Now it was 27-13.

Power-running bruiser Jordan Garland shouldered most of the offensive load for Carson in the second half. In all, he would fight for 70 yards on 19 carries. London didn’t have many chances to throw. West’s defensive line was pouring through.

“They were able to bring a lot of pressure,” Crosby said. “We were under duress on every passing attempt.”

After Carson couldn’t move the ball to start the second half, Loeblein connected with Kennerly on another deep ball for 34-13, not even two minutes into the third quarter.

“I just found a gap between their defensive backs,” Kennerly said. “And Noah couldn’t have thrown it any better. This was just like the East game. Slow start, but then we got rolling.”

Kennerly’s second TD made it 34 unanswered points for the Falcons.

Carson finally scored again late in the third quarter, with the help of two major penalties against the Falcons.

On a fourth down play from the West 15, London whipped a strike down the middle to Johnson for the TD that stopped the bleeding and made it 34-20.

“That one was all Alex,” Johnson said. “He stepped up into the pocket, saw me and threw a great ball.”

The clincher for West was a 61-yard TD pass from Loeblein to Williams-Simpson that made it 41-20 with 7:51 remaining.

“I got hit in the back as I threw, so that one was basically just a jump ball,” Loeblein said. “But he’s big and athletic. Jump balls are what he does best.”

After Jordan Neal intercepted a pass for West, both teams would tack on one more score. Gonsalves’ dash from the West 34 to inside the Carson 5 set up a rushing TD by Loeblein.

London’s pass to AJ Merriman and positive runs by jayvee star Jordan Galarza led to a 1-yard scoring plunge by Dowd in the final minute.

Carson will end the season next week when it plays South Iredell at home. The Cougars will be playing for pride and to try to send the seniors out with a win.

For West, the stakes in Greyhound Hollow will be sky-high. West hasn’t won a conference title since 2011, a season the Falcons ran the table in the NPC and finished as 3A state runner-up.

West hasn’t beaten Statesville since that championship season of 2011, a year in which the Falcons beat the Greyhounds in the regular season and then again in the second round of the 3A state playoffs.

It’s a different sort of West team the Greyhounds will be facing this year.

“Traditionally, West has run the ball to set up the pass, but now we’re passing to set up the run,” Kraft said. “We’ve got some playmakers at receiver. We’re going to get to the ball to them.”