POCA — Ethan Payne vented a lot of pent-up frustration Saturday afternoon, and North Marion paid the price.
Payne, Poca’s junior running back and Kennedy Award candidate, ran for 294 yards and five touchdowns and added some splash plays on defense to spark the Dots to a 45-27 victory against visiting North Marion in a Class AA first-round playoff game at O.O. White Stadium.
That sets up a match of unbeaten teams in next weekend’s quarterfinals, as No. 6 seed Oak Glen (11-0) is set to travel to No. 3 Poca (11-0). The date and kickoff time will be decided Sunday.
For Payne, Saturday’s effort amounted to a do-over following last year’s playoff opener against Weir. The Dots came into that game as a high seed but fell 41-14 as Payne tried to come back from a hip avulsion fracture that had sidelined him for the final month of the regular season. Not looking anything like his old self, Payne was held to 30 yards on 11 carries. Thus, he couldn’t wait to play a postseason game completely healthy.
“I was really hungry today,’’ Payne said. “I wanted to prove myself from last year. It’s just awesome being back out here.’’
Dots quarterback Jay Cook also ran for a score and completed 7 of 12 passes for 140 yards before sitting out the final few minutes when he “got the wind knocked out of him,’’ according to Poca coach Seth Ramsey.
A pair of short Payne TD runs put Poca into a 14-0 lead after one quarter, and he later hit three home runs — scoring on bursts of 76, 42 and 63 yards. His final touchdown more or less locked it up for the Dots, giving them a 42-21 lead with 6:18 left in the game.
“He’s a special player,’’ Ramsey said of the 6-foot-2, 210-pound Payne. “He does a really good job setting up blocks and does a really good job of excelling through the hole. I think we kind of wore them down on defense. Our inside plays got a little more in the third quarter and fourth quarter, and that really sparked us.’’
North Marion (7-4), the No. 14 seed, stayed within striking distance much of the way, relying on the arm of quarterback Gunner Murphy, who connected on 25 of 34 passes for 272 yards and three touchdowns. He also ran for score, but threw three interceptions — one each going to Ethan Payne, Toby Payne and Ethan Miller. Ethan Payne’s was a wow moment — a one-handed grab in his own end zone in the second quarter.
“They can score quick,’’ Ramsey said of the Huskies, “and they do a good job of getting the ball in space to their guys who can make plays. For the most part, we was able to limit the big plays. They got some chunk plays, but we made plays when we needed to.’’
Perhaps the game’s defining moment came after Ethan Payne’s 42-yard TD run handed Poca a 28-14 lead midway into the third quarter. On the ensuing kickoff by Joe Starcher, the ball ricocheted off one of the Huskies’ forward blockers and bounced back toward the Dots, and Starcher fell on the ball at his own 45.
Cook then found Toby Payne for gains of 20 and 30 yards to set up Cook’s 1-yard TD run that bumped the lead to 35-14. Toby Payne’s 30-yarder to the 1 came on a fourth-and-6 play as he wrested the ball from the Huskies’ Ethan Raines, who appeared to have the angle on the ball.
“That kick was supposed to be a squib,’’ said North Marion coach Daran Hays. “They didn’t mean to onside that. It just hit us squarely in the chest. The ball didn’t bounce our way very many times and we didn’t make our own luck, so props to them.
“They capitalized on positive plays on their end and capitalized on turnovers on our end. But I was really proud of our team continuing to compete throughout. Several times it felt like it got away from us, particulary in the late third and early fourth quarters.’’
Jahkari Mesidor caught 10 passes for 120 yards and one touchdown for the Huskies, Tyler Thorne had seven catches for 63 yards and one TD and Tariq Miller turned five receptions into 66 yards and a score. North Marion racked up 22 first downs, but managed only 63 yards on 27 rushing plays.
Poca had no such issues moving the ball on the ground. Saturday marked just the fourth time Ethan Payne has carried as many as 20 times in a game this season and put him well over 2,600 yards for the season. Already the holder of the state record for points in the regular seaon (276), he pushed his touchdown total this season to 51, three shy of the all-game mark of 54 set by Morgantown’s Spencer Farley in 14 games in 2004.
The Huskies’ Hays was asked how difficult it is defending Ethan Payne.
“Well, you can ask about 11 teams now,’’ Hays said with a weary smile. “He’s the real deal — a really strong runner.’’
About the only down side for Poca were 13 penalties for 135 yards. The Huskies’ first scoring drive was enhanced by three flags on the Dots for 37 yards.