WHEELING — Adam Murray, Wheeling Central’s All-State linebacker, is usually the one preventing teams from making plays. But on Saturday night, he provided perhaps the game’s biggest play on a fake punt.
Murray sprinted 34 yards for a first down out of punt formation as the Maroon Knights broke open a close game with two late touchdowns in the first half and cruised to a 44-15 victory over Williamstown for their second straight Class A championship at Wheeling Island Stadium.
With that burst of impromptu plays, the top-seeded Knights took a 30-8 halftime advantage and kept the No. 6 Yellowjackets (11-3) at arm’s length the rest of the way.
Junior quarterback Curtis McGhee ran for a touchdown and threw for another and supplied Central with 284 yards of total offense — 130 yards on 23 carries and 154 more passing on 11 of 17 accuracy. Five different Knights scored touchdowns as the program captured its 10th state title since 2000.
“We always say next man up,’’ said veteran Central coach Mike Young, “and these kids step up. I was waiting to see what’s going to happen because they can all take it to the house. I’m proud of all of them.’’
Central (13-1) vaulted into a 16-0 first-half lead, with the key play at that point being a blocked punt by Luke Duplaga that resulted in a safety and an ensuing touchdown after the free kick, sparked by a McGhee-to-Bray-Price 43-yard pass to set up Vinny Mangino’s 1-yard TD run.
Williamstown, though, cut it back to 16-8 with a 10-play, 71-yard drive that featured all running plays. Donathan Taylor scored on a 2-yard run and Nick Bondi caught a 2-point conversion pass from Carter Haynes to halve the lead and bring the Jackets within one possession.
That’s when Murray made his big contribution on an unplanned play.
With Central set to punt from its own 34, Murray somehow spotted a rusher right in his face, pulled the ball down and dashed 34 yards to the Williamstown 32. McGhee scored four plays later and it was 23-8 with 3:52 left to halftime.
“I just saw the guy coming up with the snap to my right,’’ Murray said, “so I just took off. I saw space, and I took advantage of it.’’
But Central wasn’t done extending its lead and taking control.
Jalen Creighton intercepted a Jackets pass and the Knights took over at their own 30. They soon faced fourth-and-4 from the Williamstown 36 with 14 seconds left, and McGhee managed to scramble for 5 yards, get the team to the line and spike the ball to stop the clock with three seconds left.
From the 31, McGhee lofted a rainbow toward the goal line. Receiver Anthony Robbins beat double coverage, outjumping Kole Sutton to snatch the ball and fighting through the tackle of Mason Deem to stick the ball into the end zone as time expired, giving Central a 30-8 lead that changed the complexion of the game.
Williamstown coach Terry Smith bemoaned the series of events that put his team in a big hole.
“First they were giving us the ball on fourth down and we roughed the punter [in the first quarter],’’ he said, “and then they get a bad snap and the guy just takes off running and gets a first down. That’s just special teams right there. Actually, we practice special teams, but it didn’t look like it.’’
Williamstown kept hammering game MVP Taylor into the line (28 carries, 198 yards), but could never get back within 15 points.
“We ran the ball real well,’’ Smith said, “and I thought we were making some creases, getting some creases. I thought we were better running the ball, so we stuck with it.
“We had opportunities in the first half, but by the third quarter it was all but over. Our guys kept playing, and I love their passion, but it was frustrating, tough to see those guys with tears in their eyes and stuff.’’
Price also broke off a late 42-yard touchdown run for Central and ended up with 58 yards rushing and six catches for 87 yards. Robbins added four receptions for 67 yards and Murray had eight tackles. McGhee was selected as the Knights’ MVP.
It completed a dominating year for the Maroon Knights, who were ranked No. 1 much of the season and won their four playoff games by an average of 30-plus points.
Young, who coached his seventh title team at Central, was asked if this team was special for him.
“They’re all special,’’ he said. “This group is a pretty talented, athletic group and someone asked me if they’re the best. I said every one I had has been the best.
“I’ve just been blessed to have that many kids and that many coaches and all my health to be able to do this. It’s my 48th year and I consider myself being around great people.’’
It was Central's fifth Class A title game win against Williamstown (without a loss) in the past 13 years -- the others came by scores of 35-20 in 2005, 14-7 in 2006, 51-14 in 2007 and 35-21 in 2011.