Nitro's Ethan Clark reaches for the end zone with the ball while trying to get past Poca's T.T. Loudin.
POCA - At times, home-standing Poca had its way with hard-luck rival Nitro on Friday night, rushing for a head-spinning 515 yards in the season opener.But that wasn't nearly the entire story of the Dots' 48-34 victory at O.O. White Stadium, a game in which they dodged all manner of Wildcats threats before scoring 21 unanswered points in the final 18-plus minutes.The biggest came in the fourth quarter with the game tied at 34, a play that threw injury to the insult that is Nitro's 16-game losing streak.Ethan Clark, who riddled the Dots with 156 receiving yards and 79 rushing yards and three touchdowns, was well on his way to a fourth. He took a punt at his own 39-yard line, lost a few defenders, cut back and nothing but green grass and his own teammates in front of him.
Then, at the 5-yard line, he fell suddenly. On this warm night, he cramped at the worst possible time. Even worse, his teammates couldn't bail him out. Not even Alexander White, whose attempt at his third field goal was smothered by Poca's Tyler Gibson.One play later, after the Dots committed an illegal formation foul, T.T. Loudin reeled off a 74-yard run. That play didn't provide the go-ahead score, but it was the beginning of Nitro's end.It was a tough way for Derek Midkiff to begin his Nitro coaching career."He's been hurt the last couple of weeks, really hasn't practiced," Midkiff said of Clark. "He was out there giving his all like the rest of us was. Nothing you can do about a muscle; when it wants to cramp, it will cramp."
For much of the game, the Dots pulverized the Wildcats on the ground, producing three runners well past 100 yards rushing. Loudin had 210 on 22 carries, quarterback Jake Payne had 134 on 18 attempts and Levi Clendenin added 143 on 11 tries. Payne and Loudin each scored three times.Loudin, a junior, is the man who has to pick up the slack for 1,000-yard rusher Dalton Hedrick, who did not come out for football this fall."He's going to be a good running back," said Poca coach Bob Lemley. "He had a sports [hernia] or some kind of injury, he couldn't play last year. So he lost that experience as a sophomore.''The Dots went for the kill early, as Clendenin picked off Christopher Moody's first pass and walked in from the 4 for the opening score. After White kicked a 31-yard field goal for Nitro, Loudin scored from the 8 to make it 12-3.
Clark and the Dots served quick notice that victory wasn't going to come so easily. The 5-foot-11, 175-pound senior hit the corner quickly on an end around, going untouched on a 66-yard TD run. The Wildcats had a great chance to take the lead after forcing the second of Poca's three lost fumbles.The Wildcats drove from their 48 to the Poca 1, where Brayden Underwood scored an apparent touchdown on a hard-fought 1-yard run. But the officials flagged Nitro for illegally assisting Underwood on the score, a 5-yard penalty Midkiff disputed.On fourth-and-goal from the 2, Underwood was stonewalled by Brandon Pryor, Hayden Bailey, Gibson and other Dots.
After that, the Dots drive 99 yards, all on the ground, to take a 19-10 lead. White's 32-yard field goal gave set the halftime score at 19-13.To start the second half, Moody completed one of three touchdown passes, ducking a rush to throw a 36-yard shot to Steven Erlewine. That gave Nitro its first lead at 20-19, but the Dots answered with a 49-yard drive (assisted by an ill-advised late hit) to retake the lead at 27-20.The Moody-to-Clark combination, which clicked 10 times, gave Nitro a 34-27 lead with scoring plays of 8 and 38 yards. Clark was particularly impressive on the former, bowling over a defender at the 5-yard line.The Dots tied it with 1:10 left in the third on another run-only drive, with Payne scoring from the 1. Early in the fourth quarter, Poca's defense dodged another bullet on a bad shotgun snap from its 9. Bailey outfought two Wildcats for that fumble.Then came the fateful punt and Clark's fateful return that wasn't. After that turn of events, Payne scored on an 8-yard run with 4:42 left, crushed Moody on an 11-yard sack and handed off to Loudin for a game-icing 6-yard run with 1:27 remaining.Lemley has seen his team give up a few punt returns in his 23 years on the Poca sideline, but he hasn't seen such misfortune as that suffered by Clark.
"We'll just put that in our playbook," Lemley joked, sympathetically. "I don't want to do that too many times."Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130, firstname.lastname@example.org
or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.