With just under 2:30 left to play in the fourth quarter, the E.E. Smith Golden Bulls had offensive possession and about 90 yards remaining to force overtime against the Fighting Scots. After finding themselves down 28-7 after two quarters of regulation, the Bulls came surging back in a second half which saw the 11-1 Mid-South conference champions outscore Scotland 21-7.
But as lauded E.E. Smith senior quarterback Phillip Bell let loose an attempted pass to the flats, Scotland linebacker Tim McNeil made the game-saving interception and returned the pick to the Bulls’ 19-yard line with less than a minute left in the game.
With that, Scotland secured the 35-28 victory over E.E. Smith. And most importantly, they could finally breathe again.
“I told my guys that it would be like this in the playoffs,” said Scotland coach Richard Bailey after the game. “You have seniors that are fighting for their football careers and lives out there, and the team we faced tonight was well-prepared and never gave up the entire game. We’re very fortunate to have won this game tonight.”
The first quarter was defined by hard-hitting defensive performances from both the Scots and Golden Bulls, as the prolific offenses of each team could only move the chains in fits and spurts.
Scotland set the tone on the very first play from scrimmage as Bell dropped back to pass. Charging through the line seemingly unblocked was Scotland senior lineman Ed Cain, who dropped Bell in the backfield for an eight-yard loss. Though Golden Bulls’ running back Sulamian Mustafaa (who was a force throughout the contest) bounced back with a 19-yard run on the next play, the drive resulted in a three and out for E.E. Smith.
While Mustafaa would collect 57 rushing yards in the quarter, the defensive strategy for the Scots was apparent from the onset of the game: Stop Bell. And the Scots did exactly that, holding Bell to just 10 combined yards (rushing and passing) in the quarter. Scotland’s defensive line dominated the interior battle as well, evidenced by lineman Shykeim Oliver’s two tackles for loss in the quarter alone.
Offensively, the Fighting Scots have been a team defined by red-hot starts during the 4A playoffs, and they nearly continued that trend on their opening drive.
On an option read quarterback keeper, Scots QB Jaylend Ratliffe broke through for a 61-yard run that would’ve been a sure touchdown had E.E. Smith sophomore cornerback Breon Charlie not made a shoestring tackle inside the Golden Bulls’ own 20-yard line.
The tackle proved to be pivotal, as Scotland was held scoreless in the red zone after a missed 26-yard field goal from Ben Utter.
Scotland would not be held without a first-quarter touchdown however, as running back Josh McPhatter showcased a part of his game usually associated with bulldozer back Jalen McLean.
With just over three minutes left in the quarter, McPhatter took a pitch from Ratliffe 16 yards, ending his sideline run in emphatic fashion by trucking over the Bulls’ secondary, which brought a roar from the Scotland crowd.
The Scots would continue to push back into the red zone, and McPhatter once again displayed his strength by carrying three E.E. Smith defenders on his back as he crossed the goal line for a 15-yard touchdown run.
With the Golden Bulls on offense and following a 29-yard Mustafaa run, the first quarter ended with Scotland up 7-0.
Though Scotland did a superb job of corralling Bell in the first quarter, the multi-talented QB finally made the Scots’ defense pay with his highlight-reel speed. On the Bulls’ drive which started the second quarter, a Bell QB keeper saw the senior scorch right past the Scotland defense for a 24-yard touchdown run to tie the game at seven apiece.
It was the last Bulls score of the first half, as the Scots responded with 21 unanswered points to close the second quarter.
On Scotland’s ensuing drive following the E.E. Smith score, Ratliffe targeted Tra’Shawn Gregory for a chain-moving pass play on a third-and-six from midfield.
Gregory would make the catch, break a tackle and sprint off to the races for the 47-yard touchdown reception.
Throughout the Scots’ playoff run, Bailey has constantly stated the importance of turnover-free football and strong special teams play. E.E. Smith was plagued with problems in each category in the second quarter, and the Fighting Scots capitalized as they threatened to break the game wide open.
After a Bulls’ three and out on their responding drive, a bad kick gave Scotland favorable field position. Runs of 32 and 19 by Ratliffe set up McPhatter for his second touchdown of the game, a no-nonsense four yard scamper to give Scotland a 21-7 lead.
On the resulting kickoff, a booming kick from Utter signaled just the start of the Bulls’ issues, as a block from the back penalty pushed E.E. Smith back from their own 20-yard line to the six-yard line.
Three plays later, Bell coughed up a QB keeper that Scotland linebacker J.P. Douglas would fall upon, and Ratliffe scored shortly thereafter on a keeper of his own.
The first half closed with Scotland having secured a commanding 28-7 lead. But it wouldn’t last, as E.E. Smith stormed back in the third quarter on both sides of the football to turn a surefire blowout into a nail-biter.
“Their coaching staff saw something in our defense at the end of the first half, and in the second half they rode those adjustments all the way,” Bailey said. “They also tightened down defensively, and the game turned into a dog fight.”
E.E. Smith’s adjustments became readily apparent in a dominant third quarter, as Scotland managed just 42 combined yards and no touchdowns. After a Scots’ three and out that saw Gregory drop what would’ve been a 64-yard touchdown pass, the Bulls’ next drive would go for 70 yards and take off a sizable chunk of game clock.
The drive resulted in a score, as the Bulls relied on the 250-pound frame of tight end Davyon Patterson to plow his way in for a one-yard touchdown run.
After a solid first half of football, Mustafaa was undoubtedly the star of the Bulls’ offense in the second half and had arguably the best running play of the game with less than a minute left in the third quarter.
What appeared to be a four-yard run from the E.E. Smith tail back turned into a 25-yard touchdown run that stunned the Scotland crowd, as Mustafaa kept his legs moving and broke two Scotland tackles to find pay dirt.
The quarter ended with Scotland up just 28-21, as both teams geared for a make-or-break fourth quarter performance.
Though the offense stagnated in the previous quarter, Scotland righted the ship just long enough to rebuild a 14-point cushion when it mattered most. On a critical fourth down call, Bailey rolled the dice and called Gregory’s number once again, and the wide receiver atoned for his dropped pass with a huge 13-yard completion at the 9:30 mark in the quarter. The play had several more crucial yards tacked on via a Bulls’ facemask penalty, which gave Scotland the ball inside E.E. Smith’s 10-yard line. A play later, and Ratliffe once again found the end zone with an eight-yard run.
But then Mustafaa made his presence felt yet again, as the running back was handed the ball eight different times (for 51 of his game-high 213 rushing yards) en route to another Bulls’ touchdown run by Patterson, this time for three yards.
However, the drive took significant time to complete, and Scotland would nurse their one touchdown lead just long enough to escape with the victory after the McNeil interception.
Their home stand now over, the Fighting Scots will travel to New Bern next week in a game which will determine who appears in the 4A state championship.