ST. PAULS — Noah Wheeler has let his teammates that weren’t on the team last year know that this week is the biggest game of the season for the St. Pauls football team.
An upper hand in the Three Rivers Conference title race is on the line with five weeks to go after Friday night as St. Pauls travels to take on the three-time defending conference champs South Columbus. Bringing up the South Columbus game from last year still rubs a tender spot for the Bulldogs, and Wheeler especially, after the Stallions took a 35-34 overtime win last year in St. Pauls.
“I’m just trying to get it through their heads that we are playing pretty much for the conference championship and the No. 1 spot and we’ve got to lay it out on the floor,” Wheeler said. “Everybody has intensity and everyone is coming out here knowing that they’ve got something on their back right now.”
St. Pauls (3-2, 3-0 TRC) travels to Tabor City in hopes of getting revenge from the loss last year, and South Columbus (5-0, 3-0 TRC) looks to keep its roll going, and St. Pauls coach Ernest King says the film shows how tough the team is to stop.
“They know how to win. I watched the East Bladen game and I watched how they found a way to win, even though it seemed like East Bladen controlled the whole game,” King said.
Like it has done for the last three years, all the Stallions have done in conference play is win with a 23-3 record since the start of the 2014 season.
The Stallions’ offense operates out of the Wing-T with junior running back Trequan Bellamy and Seth Buffkin at fullback. Senior quarterback Robby Spencer directs the offense for this third straight year and will also flip over to the linebacking corps with Buffkin.
“South Columbus is a great team. They do what they do and they will run the ball at you,” King said. “They all have a quality back. (Dennis) Leggett is gone, but they have another back that played last year. No matter who is in, they go hard.”
To prepare for that style of offense with that kind of backfield, King is using the lessons learned from two games earlier this year. He mentioned how South Robeson’s run style is the same as the Stallions and Union Pines’ personnel reminds him of the speedy running of Bellamy.
“Seeing the speed and the agility from the running backs we saw in the Union Pines games. We knew it would help us prepare for South Columbus,” he said. “South Robeson is actually helping us prepare for South Columbus because went back and looked at the mistakes we made against them in the Wing-T.”
Last year in the loss, Wheeler threw 42 pass attempts, but don’t expect that Friday. St. Pauls has developed more of a run-heavy identity this year with Wheeler and running backs Marqueise Coleman and Caleb Inman, and King expects that to be the same this week. Coleman, who returned from a leg injury last week, will be a game-time decision this week with an arm injury suffered against Fairmont.
Both King and Wheeler credit the improvements up front to why the Bulldogs have found more success on the ground.
“I don’t think we will throw it as much as we did last year. We’ve got a little more experience in our offensive line this year,” King said “Our running backs are running well and so is Noah.”
“My line does a great job of blocking now so I think the run game is going to be open for us and it’s kind of hard to know who has the ball at what time,” Wheeler said.
Jack Britt at Lumberton
Both teams have their eyes set on getting back to .500 for the season in this game after slow starts to the season. Jack Britt (2-3, 0-1 SAC) and Lumberton (2-3, 1-0 SAC) were predicted to finish in a tie for fifth by the conference’s coaches in the preseason.
Braylan Grice guided the Pirates to the win in their conference opener with five touchdowns and has been a constant with the offense so far this year. Lumberton’s defense has allowed an average of 25 points per game to its opponents this season, and has kept its last four opponents to under four touchdowns or fewer. Jack Britt’s offense will aim to challenge the Lumberton secondary with the experienced arm of junior quarterback Brennan Shortridge and senior wide outs Barry Elliot, C.J. Davis and Deshawn Curtis.
West Bladen at South Robeson
The Mustangs are in search of a way to recover from 58-12 loss at Whiteville as they host struggling West Bladen. The Knights started off 2-0 and have now lost three of their last four games. South Robeson (1-4, 1-2 TRC) hasn’t beat a 2A team on the field since the 2013 season.
Both running games will battle in this game with the Three Rivers Conference’s leading rusher B.J. Drake coming in with 710 yards rushing and 10 touchdowns. The Mustangs stable of backs — Jamearos McLeod, Darius Wright and Darrius Brown — have helped the offense move the ball, but finishing drives has been an issue.
Scotland at Purnell Swett
The top running back in the nation comes to Pembroke for the first of two visits to Robeson County during his final go-round in high school. Georgia commit Zamir White leads Scotland (3-1, 1-o SAC) on the road at Purnell Swett (3-2, 0-1 SAC) that is suffering from a two-game losing skid.
As the Rams’ offense going up against the preseason Sandhills Athletic Conference favorites, giving quarterback Luke Oxendine time to throw will be key. The Scots’, who come in ranked fifth in the recent state AP poll, secondary proves to be the weak spot and has allowed 203 yards per game through the air and only one interception. On the defensive side, slowing down the three-headed monster rushing attack of Scotland with White, junior running back Syheam McQuen and quarterback Warren Bell will be the real question.
Last week, Richmond scored six rushing touchdowns and had 235 yards on the ground in the win over the Rams.
Whiteville at Fairmont
Whiteville comes into its road trip to Fairmont on a two-game high after falling to East Bladen to open Three Rivers Conference play. Fairmont (3-2, 2-1 TRC) looks to respond in that way after its loss last week to St. Pauls.
The Wolfpack (4-1, 2-1 TRC) have allowed 12 points per game to their opponents this season, and has the job of slowing down the Fairmont offense with the conference’s leading passer in Derrick Arnette with two deep-ball threats in Javon Morris and Jordan Waters. That offense was held in check by St. Pauls with just 14 points to show last Friday.
Red Springs at East Columbus
Running back Lee McLean and Red Springs are trying to get back on track after a lopsided loss to East Bladen that was frustrating for the offense and defense. The Red Devils (3-2, 1-2 TRC) travel to East Columbus (0-5, 0-3) that has had its woes this year.
The Gators have scored three times all season and have had an average margin of 31 points per game this season. Red Springs’ defense has to be licking its chops at the thought of finding its old ways against an under-performing offense. McLean was held to a season-low 13 yards rushing in the loss.
Jonathan Bym can be reached at 910-816-1977. Follow him on Twitter @Jonathan_Bym.