RED SPRINGS — Coming into the game at Red Springs on Friday night, St. Pauls football coach Ernest King wanted to “shock everybody” with a road win to start conference play.
By forcing two third-quarter turnovers, the Bulldogs did that and started Three Rivers Conference play with a 25-12 win over rival Red Springs.
“I told them earlier in the week, ‘We’re going to go over there and shock everybody, but we’re going to wait to get home to party,’” King said.
After going into the third quarter down 12-6, St. Pauls (3-2) was forced to punt on its opening offensive possession and put Red Springs (3-2) inside it’s own 20. On the Red Devils’ first play from scrimmage on the drive, quarterback Toddrick Lockhart had a miscommunication on the pitch to running back Justin Locklear and D.J. Henson jumped on the ball to give St. Pauls the possession at the Red Springs 6-yard line. Bulldog quarterback Noah Wheeler scored on the next play and an Anthony Espinosa kick put St. Pauls up 13-12.
Two possessions later for Red Springs, Henson came away with the loose ball after a pass completion from Lockhart to Eric Graham. The fumble, once again, set the Bulldogs up to start a drive inside the Red Springs 10-yard line, and Wheeler made quick work with a touchdown run on the first play to push the lead out to 19-12.
“I just came in, made the read, got the play done and headed to the sideline,” Wheeler said. “I just made the right reads at the right times and my boy (running back) Chris (Graham) was doing his thing out there.”
Wheeler had 51 yards on nine rushes and three touchdowns in the win.
“We said that if we were going to add him to the running game, he would have to do a lot more. He did a whole lot more tonight,” King said.
The third quarter was rough for the Red Devils with two turnovers on four drives that never got into St. Pauls territory and was plagued with bad snaps, defensive pressure on Lockhart and penalties.
“We stopped them twice on defense and literally handed them the ball inside the 10-yard line,” Red Springs coach Ron Cook said. “We came it knowing we couldn’t turn the ball over, we did that. We came in knowing we couldn’t have penalties to start drives, and we did that too.”
Graham scored on a 24-yard run in the fourth quarter for St. Pauls to cap of the 19-point performance in the second half to finish with a game-high 73 yards rushing working the read option with Wheeler. The Bulldogs used the same mentality at halftime as it did during its loss at East Bladen when it cut the large halftime deficit down to a touchdown. The second half of that game has been the turning point for the team this season.
“We did not play our best half and they did and we were only down 12-6. I said, ‘We go out in the second half the way we played East Bladen, we will win this ballgame,’” King said. “We didn’t finish in the first half and once we turned around and started getting turnovers, we fueled each other.”
The defensive unit flew to the ball and the Red Springs offense in check for most of the second half, feeding a lot off the early turnovers that turned into points.
“It wasn’t just me. I had help from all my defense and my defensive backs, linebackers and defensive line helped me out,” Henson said. “We just came out with the better energy and enthusiasm in the second half.”
Red Springs took the early lead with a 29-yard touchdown pass from Lockhart to Monroe on the first drive, and then a 12-6 lead into halftime after an Eric Graham touchdown run.
With both teams having their eyes still set on the conference title, both coaches know how to refocus and readjust after Friday’s contest.
“We told our guys that in order to win the conference championship we’ve got to be 1-0 in the conference. We take it one game at a time and you can’t take anybody for granted,” King said.
“We’ve just got to forget about this. We still got a chance to win the conference, it just got a lot harder, but we still got a real good chance to win it,” Cook said.
Both teams are on the road next week with Red Springs playing at East Columbus and St. Pauls at South Robeson.
Jonathan Bym can be reached at 910-816-1977. Follow him on Twitter @Jonathan_Bym.