FAIRMONT — Point taken.
It happened a day later than expected, but St. Pauls’ 42-36 win over unbeaten Fairmont Saturday night at Hal Floyd Stadium was just as sweet nonetheless as the Bulldogs piled up 461 yards in their Three Rivers Conference opener against Robeson County’s top-ranked team.
St. Pauls took a two-score lead on Damien McMillan’s 4-yard touchdown run on 3rd-and-goal midway through the fourth quarter and held off Fairmont’s rally attempt down the stretch, sealing the deal with a clock-eating march over the final 4:54 after the Golden Tornadoes connected on a fourth-down touchdown from Jarrod Neal to Ethan Baldwin that halved the deficit.
“All our seniors got together in the second half on the sideline and told each other it was time to overcome adversity,” said St. Pauls senior tackle Shayron Jones. “It’s the biggest win of my career and probably everyone else’s career.”
Livingston had Fairmont’s defense on its heels throughout, answering each Golden Tornado touchdown drive with a highlight-fueling possession of his own.
The Bulldogs’ combination of the zone read handoffs to McMillan, option runs from their athletic signal caller and big plays in the passing game to Chuck Walters and Tim Billinger led to their fourth straight win, perhaps the most notable in the Trey Sasser era at St. Pauls.
“Based on the overall talent involved, I’d say it’s up there,” Sasser said. “I was proud of our guys for getting in a good football game and staying in it. It’s hard to contain that many playmakers and Fairmont’s got a ton of them.”
Matched up against the state’s most prolific 2A passing game, the Bulldogs held Neal and the Fairmont spread in check much of the contest before the Golden Tornadoes found a rhythm in the fourth quarter. Neal’s 50-yard pitch and catch to DeShawn Fields down the home sideline set up Baldwin’s 10-yard touchdown reception on fourth down five plays later that pulled Fairmont within six in crunch time
Both of Neal’s touchdown passes, now at a county-leading 21 for the season, came in the fourth quarter when his team facing multiple double-digit deficits. St. Pauls made Neal uncomfortable in the pocket and forced the dual-threat on the run throughout which fell into Bulldogs defensive coordinator Mike Paroli’s “keep everything in front of us” mindset.
“They’re a well-coached football team and the way they defended us, dropping eight guys, worked out for the most part,” Fairmont coach Randy Ragland said. “We couldn’t get the stops when we needed to in the second half and they kept the ball away from us.”
St. Pauls took an 18-14 lead into intermission thanks to Livingston’s ability to improvise.
With 25 seconds left in the second quarter, Livingston avoided a blitzing linebacker and rolled to his right to find a leaping Walters in the end zone for a 7-yard touchdown. Walters’ tip-toe score came after Livingston found Billinger, a sophomore wideout in the middle of his breakout game, between two defenders for a 37-yard gain inside the 10.
The Bulldogs seized momentum despite turning it over twice inside Fairmont’s 30 in the first half. One of the mistakes came on an underthrown pass from Livingston that Fairmont’s Zach Gibson snared at the 2. Livingston’s 45-yard touchdown toss to Walters on a slip screen at the 5:59 mark of the third quarter essentially erased the earlier interception and made Fairmont’s ensuing possessions that much more important over the remainder of the contest.
“This win gives us a big confidence boost, but we can’t get big-headed,” Livingston said. “We’ve still got to play Whiteville next week and they’re pretty good.”
St. Pauls reversed its trend of being slow-starters this season with a touchdown on its first drive, benefiting from great field position courtesy of Walters’ 51-yard return on the opening kickoff. The Bulldogs retained possession on a surprise onside kick, but Fairmont’s defense held bringing one of the area’s hottest offenses on the field for its first snap.
The Golden Tornadoes answered St. Pauls’ score with a 12-play drive of their own to take an 8-6 lead highlighted by Neal’s 22-yard screen to Quenton Walker on a 3rd-and-18 situation. It was the last time the Bulldogs made it easy on defense for the previous unbeaten.
“I assumed they were going to make plays, it was just a matter of how many,” Sasser said. “We tried to limit what we could and it was a great football game overall.”
Livingston accounted for 376 yards of total offense and was responsible for three touchdowns. McMillan scored on carries of 1, 3 and 4 yards for a career-high total of three touchdowns.
“You take Malik out of the equation and it’s probably a different ballgame,” Ragland said. “But it was our job to stop him and he did a great job. He’s a good quarterback and I think he’s underrated.”
Reach staff writer Brad Crawford at 910-272-6119 or at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @MrPalmettoSDS.
St. Pauls 42, Fairmont 36
St. Pauls 12 6 8 16 — 42
Fairmont 8 6 8 14 — 36
STP — Malik Livingston 11 run (run failed)
FMT — Jarrod Neal 8 run (Neal pass to Shemar Barfield)
STP — Damien McMillan 1 run (run failed)
FMT — Cedrique Baldwin 1 run (pass failed)
STP — Chuck Walters 7 pass from Livingston (pass failed)
STP — Walters 45 pass from Livingston (McMillan run)
FMT — Baldwin 5 run (Baldwin run)
STP — McMillan 3 run (Livingston run)
FMT — Shemar Barfield 15 pass from Neal (run failed)
STP — McMillan 4 run (McMillan run)
FMT — Ethan Baldwin 10 pass from Neal (Baldwin run)
PASSING — STP: Livingston 7-16-2-191. FMT: Neal 20-32-1-252.
RUSHING — STP: Livingston 21-185, McMillan 22-87. FMT: Neal 10-68, Walker 11-38, Baldwin 11-47, Hines 3-7.
RECEIVING — STP: Billinger 3-99, Walters 3-92. FMT: Hines 6-68, Baldwin 5-44, Fields 3-73, Barfield 3-37, Walker 1-22.
RECORDS — St. Pauls 4-1, 1-0; Fairmont 4-1, 0-1.