ST. PAULS — St. Pauls quarterback Noah Wheeler had a decision to make after he watched a near touchdown pop out of his hands, and into the hands of the Fairmont defense in the end zone late in the second quarter: Which Noah was going to come back on the field after halftime?
Wheeler, the reigning Robeson County Offensive player of the year, struggled to start his senior year and started to turn a new leaf in recent weeks. There was the “new Noah” that threw seven interceptions in the first two weeks of the season against E.E. Smith and Union Pines, and the “old Noah” that was returning to 2016 form the last two weeks in wins over South Robeson and East Columbus. He had to decided coming off the field after the fumble, and he chose the latter.
“I knew I had to come back, keep my composure and do what I did in the first two games,” Wheeler said after leading St. Pauls to a 28-14 win at home over Fairmont on Friday. “In the beginning of the season, I was someone totally different. Now I’m getting back to that old Noah that I was.”
St. Pauls (3-2, 3-0 TRC) won the battle of two of the hottest teams in Robeson County in a game that was a tale of two different halves. Fairmont (3-2, 2-1 TRC) went into halftime up 14-7 after forcing a pair of turnovers in the first half, but in the second half the Bulldogs’ defense clamped down, forced four turnovers and the offense ran like clockwork to score 21 unanswered points.
“We just executed. It’s amazing how they turned around after we talked to them and made our adjustments for the second half,” St. Pauls coach Ernest King said. “When I first got down here, I wasn’t all into the rivalry, but now I really am. You don’t realize the fans, the community and our kids wanted to win this.”
Wheeler accounted for all four of the touchdowns on the night with three coming after halftime. He finished the night with 74 yards rushing in the win, which was his first in any sport, against Fairmont.
“I got a shock through my body when the game ended. I was like ‘Man, we just beat Fairmont,’” he said. “It’s a rival and it feels real good.”
“We go as far as he takes us,” King said. “I’ve told everybody to not look at how he played in the first part of the year, those were 3A teams. You need to look at what he’s doing in conference play, and we’ve won every conference game so far.”
After forcing a three-and-out on Fairmont’s first drive of the second half, Wheeler along with running backs Caleb Inman and Marqueise Coleman drove 59 yards to tie the game up at 14-all with 5:53 left in the third quarter on a six-yard run from the quarterback. Another St. Pauls defensive stop, led to another score when Wheeler scored from two yards out with 25 second left in the third to put it up for good, 21-14.
Then the turnovers started to happen for Fairmont, much like it did against Ashley earlier in the year. A mishandled kickoff following the late third-quarter score gave the Bulldogs the ball back. A second turnover came less then two minutes later when Derrick Arnette connected with Javon Morris for a 49-yard completion that Morris fumbled and St. Pauls recovered.
“When you turn the ball over, you lose momentum. It was basically we had a turnover on a big pass and it took some wind out of our sail,” Fairmont coach Kevin Inman said. “It’s a learning lesson and our season ain’t over. We’ve still got three tough games that we can still build upon. We control our own destiny, but we can’t make the same mistakes.”
Still with the margin sitting at 21-14, another turnover deep in Bulldog territory cost Fairmont when Arnette threw an interception that was hauled in by Jamar McNeill, who also grabbed the fumble on the kickoff earlier. To put the game on ice, Joseph Layne sacked Arnette and forced a fumble that Clyde Cumming recovered.
Being on the field for much of the second half wore down the Golden Tornadoes’ run defense, and it couldn’t get stops when it needed to. St. Pauls out-rushed Fairmont 277-77.
“When your defense is on the field in the third quarter for a majority of it, they’re going to give up yardage and get tired,” Inman said. “We’ve got to do a better job offensively of keeping our defense off the field.”
In his return from injury, Coleman rushed for 100 yards on eight carries, and Inman added 73 yards on the ground.
Fairmont took the 14-7 lead after Arnette connected with Jordan Burch for a six-yard touchdown toss in the first quarter, and Sidney McKeithan took advantage of a fumble recovery, scoring on a two-yard touchdown run.
The win was the first half of St. Pauls’ revenge tour, and now it travels to South Columbus next week in the battle of the two undefeated teams left in the Three Rivers Conference.
“South Columbus is a great team and we will have to take our ‘A’ game down there. We most definitely aren’t going to overlook them because we still have that overtime-loss taste in our mouths,” King said.
Fairmont hosts Whiteville next Friday.
Jonathan Bym can be reached at 910-816-1977. Follow him on Twitter @Jonathan_Bym.