After trading touchdowns through the first part of the opening quarter Friday night, Carolina Forest finally came up with a defensive stand and took over with decent field position and a chance to assert some measure of control in this must-win game.
Instead that ensuing series would prove to be the turning point for West Florence.
The host Panthers fumbled inside the visitors’ 5-yard line, the Knights recovered and scored three consecutive touchdowns to pull ahead for good on the way to a 59-35 win.
The loss formally eliminates Carolina Forest (1-9, 0-3 Region VI) from the Class AAAA playoff picture. West Florence (6-4, 2-1) remains in the playoff hunt with the win.
“It would have been a big momentum boost taking the lead right there,” Carolina Forest coach Drew Hummel said, lamenting that pivotal turnover.
The game was tied 14-14 in the first quarter when that momentum shift seemed to irrevocably turn the tides in West Florence’s favor.
After junior Michael Culbreath’s 7-yard rushing touchdown knotted the score, the Panthers came up with a rare stop and took over at their own 39. Junior quarterback Will Brunson soon connected with senior tight end Ryan Yurachek for a 41-yard gain and found Yurachek again for a 12-yard connection down to the Knights’ 3.
But on the next play, the ball scooted to the turf as Brunson tried to handoff to Culbreath and West Florence took control of the ball and the game.
The Knights went 96 yards – aided by five Carolina Forest penalties – to take the lead. One of those penalties was especially costly as West Florence was facing a fourth-and-5 at the Carolina Forest 36 before the Panthers jumped offsides to keep the drive moving. Junior Dexter Fulmore soon scored the go-ahead touchdown from two yards out.
After a quick defensive stop, West Florence was on the move again and scored on a 17-yard screen pass from junior Marquane Goodman to senior Dustin Lee to make it a 28-14 game.
And on their next series, the Knights needed only four plays to score on a 34-yard touchdown pass from Goodman in stride down the sideline to junior Tyrell Dixon to make it 35-14.
“We’ve struggled all season defensively – there’s just no secret with that,” Hummel said. “Our kids are giving effort, but we just miss too many tackles and we’re giving up too many big plays.”
Carolina Forest answered that time with a quick scoring drive of its own as Brunson hit junior Zavier Jones for a 64-yard gain and then an 8-yard touchdown strike to junior Kyle Belack.
The damage had already been done, though, and West Florence wasn’t finished.
After Belack made a nice interception for Carolina Forest at the goal line to keep the visitors temporarily at bay, Brunson was hit as he released the ball and threw a pick of his own. Junior Matthew Thomas returned the interception to the 3 and two Panther penalties moved the ball to the 1. Senior Damario Scarbrough punched it in from there for a 42-21 West Florence lead.
“We were trying to get a score. We saw something that we liked, he got hit on the throw, he picked it and it turned into a 21-point halftime lead,” Hummel said. “That was the big swing in the football game, I thought.
Belack delivered a second-half highlight for the Panthers with a 67-yard touchdown catch from Brunson early in the third quarter, but the game never got any closer.
Junior Jaylen Pinckney added more points later in the third quarter for the guests on an 89-yard interception return for a touchdown to make it 52-28 and put an exclamation point on the Knights’ victory.
Carolina Forest will look to bounce back next week against a struggling Conway team.
“It’s Conway week. It’s a rival game,” Hummel said. “Our kids will be ready to play, their kids will be ready to play and we’ll give a great effort. I don’t have any worries about that next week.”
WF-Dexter Fulmore 72 yd run (Alex Spence kick)
CF-Zavier Jones 51 pass from Will Brunson (Kyle Belack kick)
WF-Fulmore 64 run (Spence kick)
CF-Michael Culbreath 7 run (Belack kick)
WF-Fulmore 2 run (Spence kick)
WF-Dustin Lee 17 pass from Marquane Goodman (Spence kick)
WF-Tyrell Dixon 34 pass from Goodman (Spence kick)
CF-Belack 8 pass from Will Brunson (Belack kick)
WF-Damario Scarbrough 1 run (Spence kick)
CF-Belack 67 pass from Brunson (Belack kick)
WF-Spence 39 field goal
WF-Jaylen Pinckney 89 interception return (Spence kick)
WF-Eron Darby 15 run (Spence kick)
CF-Ryan Yurachek 10 pass from Brunson (Belack kick)