High School Football

Bluffton Bobcats: Back to life, back in state semifinals

ccox@islandpacket.comNovember 23, 2012 

Some couldn't bear to listen. Others waited anxiously with bated breath.

The Bluffton High School football team gathered together in coach Ken Cribb's classroom Monday afternoon to listen in on the fate of Goose Creek, which was fighting for its playoff life in front of the S.C. High School League.

The Gators, undefeated and nationally-ranked, had beaten the Bobcats three nights prior thanks to six Bluffton turnovers. But it would all go for naught if the league decided to uphold its disqualification from the previous week after it was discovered the Gators used an ineligible player throughout the season.

"It was definitely weird," quarterback C.J. Frazier said of the hearing. "There were a lot of different emotions from some people wanting to see what was going on. Some people said it was too hard for them and stood outside waiting.

"We were all really nervous."

It was an unprecedented situation for the young Bluffton program. The Bobcats' inaugural season in Class 4-A was seemingly over, yet it could all change with one simple vote.

A FUMBLED OPPORTUNITY

The news had been handed down almost too quick to process. The Bobcats, who had spent the last several days preparing to host Conway, were now traveling to Goose Creek to take on one of the top teams in the nation.

The odds were stacked against them, that much is certain. Little preparation for a 5-7 Conway team is one thing. Little preparation for a 13-0 Gators squad featuring several future FBS players is another.

Yet there Bluffton was, driving down the field with a chance to pull within a touchdown late in the second half. But another turnover -- the theme of the night -- derailed any chances of a shocker.

The Bobcats' locker room was quiet. Not necessarily because of the loss itself, but instead because of how Bluffton got there.

Six turnovers, including a pick-six, had led to a 35-25 defeat. A bad snap on a punt deep in the Bobcats' own territory set up another Gators score.

"Everybody was real disappointed," said Frazier, who threw a pair of interceptions in the loss. "We were enjoying what we thought were our last moments together."

There was little emotion shown, Frazier said. Silence mostly filled the locker room as jerseys and pads came off.

"There was a bunch of mixed emotions," Cribb said. "They were excited about being able to play that kind of football statistically and on the field play as well as they did and outplay Goose Creek.

"At the same time, they were angry about the fact that they lost their opportunity."

It meant little that there was still a chance Bluffton would advance. At that point, the Bobcats' season might as well have been over.

LEARNING THEIR FATE

The loss was over, but preparation for Northwestern still began.

The Trojans, who knocked off West Florence 40-28 in the quarterfinals, were as uncertain about the semifinal matchup as Bluffton was.

"We had to make two game plans (last) weekend not knowing which one we would use," Northwestern coach Kyle Richardson told The (Rock Hill) Herald. "So (Monday) at practice, we worked on defense and spent a lot of time correcting mistakes we made last Friday against West Florence."

Bobcats players kept each other abreast of updates via the team's Facebook page. And as the weekend turned to Monday, players congregated in Cribb's classroom to learn their fate. The Bobcats were supposed to watch film until 3:20 p.m. that day before heading to the practice field, but Goose Creek's hearing had other plans.

"I just couldn't make myself go out until I knew," Cribb said. "I just couldn't do it. I decided I was going to sit there and wait to see the outcome before we moved forward."

The decision came down as swiftly as the first one did. Goose Creek had lost the vote, 14-0, before seeing its mercy plea fall 12-2.

"They were excited," Cribb said. "It wasn't overjoyous because there's still a part of us that knew we had the opportunity to do it ourselves. Even though we were glad to be back in it, I can't really explain the feeling that you have."

It was a bittersweet moment for Cribb and Co. The Bobcats were still alive, but not in the manner they envisioned it happening.

"It would have been a little sweeter if we would have won Friday instead of getting in this way," he said.

BACK IN THE FINAL FOUR

The Bobcats are back in the semifinals, albeit through an unusual route.

Waiting for them is an 11-2 Northwestern squad, which has dropped games to Byrnes and South Pointe this season by a combined seven points. The Trojans' air raid attack -- led by junior quarterback Mason Rudolph, who holds an offer from LSU -- averages 41.7 points and 290.8 passing yards per game.

"He gets rid of it quick, he doesn't hold onto it," Cribb said of Rudolph, who has thrown for 3,614 yards and 38 touchdowns this year. " ... We need to get a little pressure and get our hands up."

Dynamic receiver Dupree Hart, who stands just 5-foot-4, leads the Trojans with 1,116 yards and 17 touchdowns this season. He lines up all over the field and serves as the complement to tall wideout Rontavious McClure, who is second on the team with 963 yards and nine scores.

Pressure from end Shameik Blackshear and tackle K.J. Ford will help take away some of the Trojans' game. Northwestern likes to operate with screen passes and underneath routes, but isn't afraid to throw deep if the opportunity presents itself.

"They take their time and try to pinpoint weaknesses and attack it," Cribb said.

A win over Northwestern would send Bluffton to its second consecutive state title game, potentially in a rematch with South Pointe, which knocked off the Bobcats in last year's Class 3-A final. The Bobcats are appearing in their third straight semifinal after advancing to the Lower State championship in their last two seasons in Class 3-A.

"I feel it's our responsibility to represent the Lowcountry as the representative of this bracket," Cribb said. "I'm sure that a lot of people think (Goose Creek) should still be in there. That's all irrelevant. ... And of course, the kids are all excited to have this opportunity."

How Bluffton got there means nothing at this point. The fact that the Bobcats are there is all they care about.

"We definitely wish we could have pulled it out Friday," Frazier said, "but at least we get to keep on playing. That's exciting."

TONIGHT'S GAME

Bluffton (12-1) at Northwestern (11-2)

Time: 7:30 tonight

Where: District Three Stadium, Rock Hill

Radio: WRHI 94.3 in Rock Hill

Last meeting: First meeting

The Buzz: Bluffton makes its return to the Class 4-A playoffs after Goose Creek -- which beat the Bobcats 35-25 last week -- was once again disqualified for using an ineligible player this season. The Bobcats get a second chance to make up for their last performance, as Bluffton committed an uncharacteristic six turnovers in the 10-point loss. A win would send the Bobcats to their second straight state championship appearance after the team advanced to the Class 3-A final last year against South Pointe. A Northwestern victory, meanwhile, would send the Trojans to their fourth final in five years. They won it all in 2010, beating Greenville 42-10 at Williams-Brice Stadium.

The pick: Northwestern 41, Bluffton 36

Players to watch

BLUFFTON

Marquis Webber, WR: The senior receiver shined once again against the Gators, hauling in eight passes for 168 yards and two touchdowns. He ended the regular season with a 13-reception, 248-yard performance against Summerville and then opened the playoffs with a nine-catch, 109-yard effort against South Florence.

C.J. Frazier, QB: The senior threw for three touchdowns and nearly 300 yards last week against Goose Creek and will need to be at his best to outduel Northwestern. Bluffton has reached the semifinals in all three of his seasons as a starter.

Shameik Blackshear, DE: Northwestern's style of offense limits the amount of pressure a defense can put on the quarterback. That means Blackshear and the other defensive linemen will have to make it count when they find their way into the Trojans' backfield. Blackshear, who holds an offer from South Carolina, tallied 94 tackles and 17 stops for loss in the regular season.

NORTHWESTERN

Mason Rudolph, QB: The junior quarterback has lit up opposing defenses this year, throwing for more than 3,600 yards and 38 touchdowns to just four interceptions. He completes 69.5 percent of his passes and has an efficiency rating of 165.37.

Dupree Hart, WR: The short receiver is the big-play threat for the Trojans, as he has racked up 91 receptions for 1,116 yards and 17 scores this season. Hart, who averages 12.3 yards per catch, lines up all over the field on offense.

LaThomas Long, RB: While most of Northwestern's offense comes through the air, the Bobcats still need to respect the ground game. Long leads the offense with 672 yards on the ground and 11 scores this season, but more importantly, he averages 6.9 yards per carry.

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