A simple tackle on a 3-yard gain seemed to, essentially, alter the course of A.C. Flora’s postseason hopes.
On the stop was Denzel Johnson, the Falcons’ do-everything wide receiver and cornerback who had seemingly carried the team to the Class 3A Upper State Championship. But a hard hit to the helmet ended with a concussion for the senior standout, who missed all but that one play in the second half.
South Pointe took full advantage. The Stallions broke open what had been a 21-all game at halftime with 19 unanswered points, ending A.C. Flora’s playoff push and sending South Pointe to next Saturday’s state championship game at Williams-Brice Stadium with the 40-21 victory.
“He’s a playmaker,” coach Reggie Shaw said. “Any time you don’t have him in the game, he’s a difference-maker on both sides of the ball. Any time Denzel is in the game, we’re a better team.”
Johnson’s absence was felt on both sides of the ball. Without their top corner, the Falcons’ defense was sliced through the air by South Pointe quarterback Greg Ruff, who finished 19 of 23 for 416 yards and six touchdown passes.
The A.C. Flora secondary had struggled even with Johnson locking horns with the Stallions’ top targets, as Ruff had touchdown passes of 26, 88 and 27 yards in the first half. But the lefty took the wind out of their sails over the final 24 minutes.
It started early in the third quarter, when the junior signal-caller found tailback Shawn McCullough out of the backfield on a 21-yard swing pass for a touchdown, giving South Pointe (11-3) the lead for good. After the Falcons (12-2) were stuffed on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line on the ensuing drive, he guided the Stallions on a 99-yard drive, which he capped with a 38-yard strike to Quay Brown for a 33-21 advantage.
“Once we saw him go out, it was like their whole team just shut down,” Ruff said of Johnson’s injury. “We knew we had to boost them up and get them on out of here.”
Both coaches called the fourth down stop the turning point in the game.
“That’ll break your back,” South Pointe coach Straight Herron said. “It would break any team’s back. I’m proud of the defense. Our coaches did a great job.”
Herron had spent the week hyping up Johnson to his players, knowing a big game from No. 8 might have spelled their undoing this postseason. But he acknowledged the momentum shift on the sideline, which followed an already rowdy halftime speech from his players.
“Our guys got pumped up. They know, we’ve been preaching it all week long,” Herron said. “We told them that No. 8’s a player. We probably told them some things that weren’t even true, just so they knew how good he was. They knew that, so when he went down, I think it pumped them up.”
But even Johnson might not have been enough to reverse his team’s fortunes with the way South Pointe worked over the Falcons defense. A pair of Stallions receivers topped the century mark, as Josh Wilkes finished with three catches for 109 yards – including a 69-yard score on a deep post pattern – while Brown added 103 yards on four receptions, two of which went for scores.
“I felt like, coming in, we had a better chance than this,” Shaw said. “They hit some big plays and we didn’t, and that was the difference. The big play was the story of the night.”
The Stallions will look for more big plays next week when they take on Hartsville, a 23-20 overtime winner against Marlboro County, in the state title game. The Falcons, meanwhile, will go back to the drawing board after a surprising 12-win season.
“We’ll build on this,” Shaw said. “It’s not the end, it’s just the beginning. You’ve got to take it and let it motivate you in the offseason. We’ve got to get that much better.”
S – Deshawn Davis 26 catch from Greg Ruff (B.T. Potter kick) 5:11
F – Denzel Johnson 80 kick return (Joseph Charlton kick) 5:00
S – Chris Smith 88 catch from Ruff (Potter kick) 7:57
F – Clarence Watson 77 run (Charlton kick) 7:39
F – Donald Gist 9 run (Charlton kick) 1:31
S – Quay Brown 27 catch from Ruff (Potter kick) 0:19
S – Shawn McCullough 21 catch from Ruff (conversion failed) 10:22
S – Brown 38 catch from Ruff (kick failed) 0:18
S – Josh Wilkes 69 catch from Ruff (Potter kick) 10:57
F -- Voshon St. Hill 12-40, Greg Ruff 10-15, Jay Feaster 1-7, Shawn McCullough 7-6, Quay Brown 1-3; S -- Clarence Watson 9-103, Denzel Johnson 4-58, Brendan Greene 12-57, Donald Gist 11-53, Coleman Pope 6-20.
S -- Greg Ruff 19-23-0-416; F -- Brendan Greene 12-20-1-XX, Denzel Johnson 1-1-0-6.
S -- Josh Wilkes 3-109, Quay Brown 4-103, Chris Smith 1-88, Deshawn Davis 6-59, Nick McCloud 4-46, Shawn McCullough 1-21; F -- Lowndes Pope 4-69, Michael Aimone, 4-29, Denzel Johnson 2-10, Corey Riley 2-3, Coleman Pope 1-(-3).