By MIKE McCOMBS
COLUMBIA – It looked like Thomas Heyward Academy’s good fortunes had run out in the fourth quarter Saturday night at Benedict College’s Charlie Johnson Stadium. Instead, the Rebels pulled off an unbelievable victory over Pee Dee Academy, 35-31, in the SCISA 2A state championship game to give Nic Shuford his first title and the school its first crown in 37 years.
Bruzza Pusha caught a 3-yard touchdown pass from Jake Masters with 5.4 seconds remaining in the game to push Thomas Heyward over the top. When asked to recount some key decisions on the game-winning drive, Shuford couldn’t.
“I can take you through the final play,” he said. “I don’t remember any of that drive.”
Likely for the Rebels (13-0) and their fans, though, it was unforgettable.
The Eagles (9-2) had put the Rebels in a tight spot, scoring a touchdown and 2-point conversion with 6:01 left in the game to take their first lead since early in the third quarter.
The Rebels’ star of the game, junior running back Bobby Payne, had earlier scored three huge touchdowns in a stretch of four third-quarter offensive plays to give the Rebels the lead. But he had since left the field twice for injuries.
Starting at their own 18, the Rebels stitched together a masterful 16-play drive, buoyed by four huge third- or fourth-down conversions.
Flushed from the pocket, Masters weaved his way up the field for 33 yards on a third-and-16 from his own 12. Then Payne picked up 10 on a third-and-6 from midfield. Then the Rebels got a serious break.
On fourth-and-8 from the Eagles’ 29, Trey Pusha took Masters’ pitch to the right and instead of racing for the corner, he pulled up and threw a pass downfield. It didn’t stand much chance of being completed, but Thomas Heyward’s receiver was mugged badly, and the Rebels had new life with 49 seconds left. Shuford said the penalty wasn’t the goal, but he wasn’t complaining.
“We thought we were going to catch them sleeping,” he said. “We’d been running that sweep all night.”
On third-and-5 from the 10, Masters completed his first pass of the game to Trey Pusha for a first down to the 3, and the Rebels used their final timeout with 10 seconds left in the game.
If the Rebels considered a game-tying field goal and taking their chances with overtime, no one will really ever know.
“We were definitely talking about it,” Shuford said. “But we decided we could take a couple of shots through the air before it came to that.”
They only needed one. Bruzza Pusha came wide open in the right side of the end zone, and Masters delivered the ball and the victory.
“Jake doesn’t get enough credit, just because we don’t throw it 35, 40 times a game,” Shuford said. “But he’s a great leader on this team. He does whatever it takes for us to get a win.”
If Saturday’s game was a party for the Rebels, they were late in arriving. River Pender’s 6-yard touchdown run with 1:17 remaining in the first half kept the Rebels from being shut out 14-0 at the half.
“We came out in the first half and we didn’t play the football we usually play. It wasn’t as jacked as it should have been. Everybody was fighting and arguing. Once we got back in the locker room (at halftime), we set it straight and got it together and came out ready to play,” Pender said. “I told them, this is it. This is the last ride. Everybody do what we can do.”
The Rebels found something that worked in the third quarter and rode it as far as it would take them.
The play, a pitch to the left out of the Rebels’ full backfield, almost blew the game open for Thomas Heyward.
On the Rebels’ first drive of the second half, Payne took the pitch and raced 45 yards for the touchdown to tie the game.
After the Eagles missed a 35-yard field goal, Payne streaked 80 yards on the Rebels’ next offensive play for their first lead of the game.
“I said, ‘Coach, they can’t stop me.’ My mentality was keep going, don’t stop,” Payne said.
On the Rebels’ next possession, Payne would have made it three plays in a row, but a shoestring tackle limited him to a 16-yard run. Three plays later, he weaved 24 yards for his third score in four offensive touches.
“We just found something we liked there for a while,” Shuford said. “They eventually shut it down, and we had to move on to something else.”
Payne finished with 235 yards on 23 carries.
Pee Dee’s Jason Norton caught a 30-yard scoring pass from Jake Lane to cut the Rebels lead to 28-21 late in the third quarter.
It looked like Thomas Heyward might survive the fourth without scoring. After Bryce Tillotson tackled Lane for a 3-yard loss on fourth and 2, the Rebels should have been able to work the clock.
But then it all seemed to fall apart.
With 7:33 left in the game, Payne was carried off the field after a run for no gain. Three plays later, a punt snap sailed over Tillotson’s head and out of the end zone for a Pee Dee Academy safety.
Norton’s 33-yard touchdown catch from Lane on the ensuing drive, coupled with the 2-point pass to Connor Gasque, put Thomas Heyward in dire straits.
But then came the Rebels’ unforgettable drive. Well, unforgettable for everyone but Shuford.
“There’s no quit in our guys. Pee Dee, that’s a helluva football team over that, and they were battling, too,” Shuford said. “It was a great game back and forth, all day.”
THOMAS HEYWARD ACADEMY 35, PEE DEE ACADEMY 31
THA 0 7 21 7 – 35
PDA 7 7 7 10 – 31
PDA-Jason Norton 10 run (Zeman kick), 3:36
PDA-Jake Lane 7 run, (Zeman kick), 10:39
THA-River Pender 8 run (CJ Cleland kick), 1:17
THA-Bobby Payne 45 run, (Cleland kick), 9:33
THA-Payne 80 run (Cleand kick), 7:02
THA-Payne 24 run (Cleland kick), 3:41
PDA-Norton 30 pass from Lane (Zeman kick), 1:58
PDA-Safety, snap through end zone, 7:08
PDA-Norton 33 pass from Lane (Connor Gasque pass from Lane), 6:01
THA-Bruzza Pusha 3 pass from Jake Masters (Cleland kick), :05.4
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