By all accounts, the Scotland squad who took the field against the undefeated New Bern Bears Friday night were not the same Scots that fans have grown accustomed to seeing.
The mistakes, penalties and costly turnovers that the Scots committed against New Bern in the 4A Eastern Regional Championship game were not only uncharacteristic, but sparingly seen in a decorated 2012 season.
And with a state championship berth on the line, Scotland faltered when it mattered most and fell to the Bears in a 23-6 heartbreaker.
“You simply can’t make the mistakes that we made against a great team like New Bern,” said Scotland coach Richard Bailey after the game. “We really couldn’t get out of our own way.”
The playoff jitters appeared to affect both teams throughout the first half of regulation, as penalties and miscues marred an otherwise hard-nosed, physical contest.
Electing to receive following the coin toss, Scotland’s first drive saw a false start on the opening play, followed later by a holding call which negated a huge, statement-making run by tailback Jalen McLean.
Nonetheless, Scotland continued to chip away at the Bears’ defense on their first possession, prompting a fourth down with three yards remaining at New Bern’s 23-yard line. As they’ve grown accustomed to doing all season long, the Scots opted to go for it, but were stopped short to give New Bern’s explosive playmakers a chance on offense.
Scotland’s 3-4 defensive scheme has been built on speed and preventing the option-based attack of the majority of opposing offenses. But the Scots have run into occasional trouble attempting to halt a successful downhill rushing attack, including last week at E.E. Smith.
And in this game, it was the combination of 225-pound New Bern running back Jac Watkins and speedy quarterback Josh Taylor who allowed the Bears to drive right at Scotland’s interior defense.
Watkins would collect 33 tough rushing yards in the first quarter and helped lay the groundwork for a punishing rushing attack that the Bears sustained throughout the game. And as Scotland played the option on the outside with their line backing core, it gave Taylor a large seam in the middle of the field which the senior capitalized upon with a 53-yard touchdown run to give New Bern the 7-0 edge in the first quarter.
The Bears’ defense remained steadfast as a whole in the first quarter, preventing Scotland from scoring for the first time in the 4A state playoffs. They even registered a safety on Scotland, which occurred after Scots’ linebacker Artemis Robinson intercepted a Taylor pass in the end zone that set up the Scots at their own three-yard line. A gang tackle on Scotland quarterback Jaylend Ratliffe after an attempted option rush added two more points to New Bern’s total. The first quarter ended with New Bern up 9-0 on Scotland.
But New Bern couldn’t contain the Scots for long, as Scotland ripped off a two-play, 76 yard scoring drive on their first possession of the second quarter. The drive was punctuated by a 33-yard touchdown on a keeper from Scots’ QB Jaylend Ratliffe which immediately followed a Josh McPhatter scamper that went for 43-yards.
It was to be Scotland’s only score of the game, as critical turnovers ended potential scoring drives in disappointing fashion late in the game.
Meanwhile, the Fighting Scots began to counter the no-nonsense rushing game of New Bern by stacking defenders in the box, prompting the Bears to turn more towards an aerial attack. It proved effective in the waning minutes of the second quarter, as Taylor only completed one pass out of seven attempts and Watkins was held to just 19 yards on six carries. The score was 9-6 in favor of New Bern heading into the half.
In what was a sign of things to come, the Bears once again turned the ball over in the end zone after a successful drive to open the third quarter. After a Taylor pass was hauled in by wide receiver Chandler Powell for a 48-yards, the New Bern QB was once again picked off in the end zone, this time by Scotland safety Robert McKoy who was brought down after returning the interception for a 21-yard gain.
But Scotland failed to capitalize on the turnover, and after a three-and-out, the Scots sent their special teams unit out for an attempted punt. What followed was a bizarre miscue for the Scots, as punter Ben Utter sent a kick into his blockers which was promptly recovered by New Bern at Scotland’s own 38-yard line.
Unlike Scotland, the Bears would make the Scots pay for the mistake, as a play later Taylor would convert a broken pass attempt into a highlight-reel 34-yard touchdown QB keeper that saw the signal caller make four Scotland defenders miss en route to the end zone. The score put the Bears up 10 over Scotland with 16 minutes and change left in regulation.
The resiliency that Scotland has shown against their tougher opponents this season once again made its presence felt after Robinson netted a huge punt return to put Scotland in New Bern territory. After being off-rhythm throughout the game, Ratliffe finally found top target Tra’Shawn Gregory with a crisp slant pass that gave the 6’3” receiver room to run.
However, Gregory would take the pass 15-yards before losing control of the football for a lost fumble to stop Scotland dead in their tracks.
It was the first of two crippling fumbles for the Scots down the stretch.
“It was a case of could’ve would’ve should’ve,” Bailey said. “We could’ve and should’ve scored 30 against this New Bern team, but the fumbles we committed were crippling to say the least. Our defense did what it was supposed to do, but when you fail to score in three different trips to the red zone you won’t win, simple as that.”
McLean ended the third quarter with an emphatic 56-yard run that had all the signs of ending in a score before the Scotland RB was chased down by Bra’lon Cherry who made the shoestring tackle.
Sensing a momentum shift, Scotland kept the Bears’ defense on its’ heels after a 17-yard McPhatter run put the Scots in the red zone. New Bern was flagged on the very next play for an illegal substitution, which put the Scots inside the five-yard line for a scoring opportunity that could’ve potentially changed Scotland’s fortunes.
But as he plowed ahead for the score, McPhatter coughed up the ball in the end zone; and just like that, Scotland’s effort to pull within striking distance ended.
With the wind out of their sails, Scotland appeared helpless as the Bears took the ensuing possession 99-yards on 14 plays to set up a three-yard scoring run for Watkins.
The score sealed the game for New Bern, and while the disappointment was palpable as the Scots came together for their final post-game huddle of the year, Bailey expressed nothing but pride in his fallen team.
“The effort our guys showed tonight was great,” Bailey said. “When this team looks themselves in the mirror tonight, they can feel good in knowing that they played their hearts out.”
The Fighting Scots end their season with a 12-2 record in Bailey’s first year as coach.