The Stone Bridge Bulldogs' otherwise perfect season ended in agonizing fashion Saturday as their gallant comeback attempt from a 20-point deficit fell just short in the game's final minute, giving the Lake Taylor Titan's their first AAA Division 5 state title.
The Bulldogs controlled large stretches of the game, but were ultimately done in by a handful of crucial miscues. The talented Titans capitalized and claimed the 20-14 victory.
Defenses dominated nearly the entire first half of this battle between undefeated powerhouses. The Titans started things off by sacking Burns on consecutive plays during the Bulldogs’ first series. The sacks were a harbinger of things to come, as the Titans’ pass rush gave the Stone Bridge fits the entire game, helping hold the Bulldogs scoreless until late in the third quarter.
As good as the Titans defense was, the Bulldogs were even better. Led by All-American Jonathan Allen's disruptive presence on the line, Stone Bridge forced Lake Taylor's offense into three-and-out punts on their first three drives. On those drives, the Titans gained just 11 total yards.
Even with the stout defense for both teams, Stone Bridge dominated the opening quarter statistically, outgaining the Titans in yards, first downs and time of possession. But while the Titan defense bent at times, it never broke, and ultimately benefitted from Stone Bridge’s mistakes, including fumbles that were recovered but resulted in negative yardage. Lake Taylor also stopped Stone Bridge on two fourth down attempts, helping keep the score knotted at zero until a two-minute span late in the half swung momentum squarely in favor of the Titans.
"We knew they were a big, massive, good and well-coached football team. We were just hoping for any kind of play – a fumble, an interception, tipped ball, anything," said Lake Taylor head coach Hank Sawyer. "At times we couldn’t stop them, we just had to hang in there."
The Titans turned to a quick strike passing attack in the second quarter after having their own problems stopping Allen and the Stone Bridge pass rush. The switch paid dividends, with quarterback Delmon Williams connecting with Ja'Kale Pinkney and Donovan Powell to pick up the Norfolk team's first first downs of the night. Despite then losing the ball on a failed quick pass that was ruled a fumble and recovered by the Bulldogs, the wide receiver screens helped setup the game's first score.
On the next series, the Titans faced third down and 22. Williams dropped back and faked a quick pass to Pinkney, who used a double move to get open behind the Bulldogs’ defense and caught the pass in stride for a 68-yard touchdown, the only big play given up by the Bulldog defense the entire game. Williams was the most effective offensive player on either team, completing 13 of 15 passes for 160 yards and two scores.
While that play stunned the Bulldogs, the real shock came on the Titans’ ensuing drive and early in the third quarter. Facing fourth down and seven from their own 33, Stone Bridge opted for a quick punt. The punt was deflected and caught by Lake Taylor's Marquise Poole, giving the Titans the ball at the Stone Bridge 25. Two plays later Williams connected with Nhyre Quinerly for a 19-yard touchdown. The score gave the Titans a 14-0 lead at halftime. After the Bulldogs fumbled a punt in the third quarter, Lake Taylor scored on a short drive, but missed extra point, extending the lead to 20-0.
Despite giving up 20 points – with two scores coming off short fields after turnovers by the offense – the Stone Bridge defense remained dominant, holding Titan running back and Eastern District Player of the Year Brandon Moore to just 35 yards rushing for the game. Moore entered the game with 1,800 yards and 24 touchdowns. The Bulldogs also forced the Titans to punt on five of six second-half drives.
"I think we played a great defensive game," said Stone Bridge head coach Mickey Thompson.
Allen said his teammates performed well against a team that beat past state champs Phoebus 54-0.
"I think we matched up with them perfectly," he said. "To be perfectly honest, I felt like we let the game slip away, we dug ourselves into too big of a hole to come back in the second half."
Perhaps nearing desperation mode with a large third-quarter deficit against one of the premiere defenses in the state, the Bulldogs received a spark not from the arm, but the legs, of Burns. On the next drive, the Stanford-bound quarterback took off on a designed run for 53 yards, and then ran three more times to put Stone Bridge on the scoreboard near the end of the third.
The Bulldogs capitalized on the momentum of Burns' first score midway through the fourth. Following a poor Lake Taylor punt, Stone Bridge started the drive at the Titan 31-yard line. Facing fourth down and nine, it appeared the Bulldogs would not take advantage of the great field position. But Burns connected with Rassaun Goldring on a 29-yard completion to extend the drive. One play later Burns scored again on a 1-yard plunge. Burns lead the game rushing, racking up 119 yards on the ground. In the air, however, he completed just two of eight passes for 50 yards.
With the Lake Taylor lead down to six points and more than six minutes left on the clock, the Bulldogs were primed for late game heroics with momentum and their cheering section squarely on their side.
Stone Bridge got the ball back at its own 15-yard line with a little more than three minutes left in the game. The Bulldogs drove the ball down to the Lake Taylor 20 on several strong runs from Sterling Dailey and D'Ante Yarborough. Overall, the Bulldogs’ offense amassed 232 rushing yards against a defense that gave up less than 1,000 combined rushing yards during the previous 14 games.
Facing third down and two with less than a minute left and two timeouts, head coach Mickey Thompson opted for an inside run to Dailey, hoping to pick up a fresh set of downs as the final seconds ticked away. But the Titan's Brandon Moore burst into the backfield and hit Dailey from behind, forcing a fumble. Taylor simply ran out the clock after that.
"We wanted to get a first down that would leave us 35 seconds left, and give us four good shots at [a touchdown]," said Thompson. "I thought we had some pretty good ideas coming in [for those plays], and we would have liked to run those plays but we didn't get a chance to."
The game ends yet another remarkable season in what has been an amazing decade-plus for Stone Bridge football. Another loss in the state finals – a venue many teams would love to just be a part of, hit the Bulldogs hard as another missed opportunity.
Coach Thompson said he can’t compare senior classes from year to year “because that wouldn't do them justice, but as far as a group of guys who stand behind you, and a group of guys who are loyal, and a group of guys who work hard, and a group of guys that you love going to practice with, there's none better."
Allen, who will play for Nick Saban and the Alabama Crimson Tide next season, said college football “is going to be completely different from high school football, I already miss it."
[A big thanks for Blue Moon Construction for providing the camera Sean used at the game.]