NEW CASTLE – With 40.9 seconds left in the first half, Smyrna – which had been averaging 55 points per game – had zero points.
The Eagles trailed by two touchdowns, and their starting quarterback – who had thrown 34 touchdown passes this season – was being taken off the field on a stretcher.
The situation couldn’t have looked any bleaker.
But then Will Knight and the offensive line took over. The sophomore running back started taking direct snaps, and Smyrna dominated the rest of the way for a stunning, 30-13 victory over William Penn in the DIAA Division I football semifinals on Saturday at Bill Cole Stadium.
Knight was already having a decent game – nine carries for 49 yards – when Eagles quarterback Nolan Henderson was wheeled off as a precautionary measure after taking a hard hit to the head. Then Knight went into beast mode, rushing 23 times for 221 yards and four touchdowns the rest of the way.
“When Nolan went out, our team faced the worst adversity that you could possibly have,” Smyrna coach Mike Judy said. “… The kids never lost that fire in their eyes. I think if anything, it gave them more reason to play with that fire. They were doing it for No. 2 [Henderson].”
The third-seeded Eagles (11-1) will go for their first state football championship against top-seeded Salesianum at 1 p.m. next Saturday at Delaware Stadium. Henderson’s status is uncertain, but Smyrna showed it has one heck of a Plan B.
“That’s the contingency plan,” Judy said. “If Nolan is out, Will is going to run the show.”
Defending D-I champion William Penn (9-2) had its way for most of the first half. The Colonials built a 13-0 lead, as Kamau Floyd (12 carries, 99 yards) scored on sweeps of 13 and 15 yards. And William Penn reached the Smyrna 14 and 21 on two other drives before turning it over on downs.
It was looking good for the Colonials, and it was looking even better when Henderson left the game. But …
“It may have been the worst thing that happened to us,” William Penn coach Marvin Dooley said. “Because 25 [Knight] just took over. He was a one-man show.”
The show started on the first play after the injury timeout, as Knight broke a 17-yard run and a 15-yard facemask penalty was tacked on. Then Knight went for 17 more to the 1, and punched it in on the next play. The two-point run failed, but Smyrna was unexpectedly on the board with 21 seconds left in the half.
“It was huge, because we never really go down by that much,” Knight said. “We just had to execute harder.”
The Eagles had been averaging 38.6 points in the first half this season. On this day, they were thrilled to be down 13-6 at the half.
The Colonials caught a break on their first drive of the second half, as a false start penalty negated a fumbled snap for a 9-yard loss on fourth-and-2. William Penn punted instead, and Frank Burton’s 54-yard boot rolled to a stop at the 2.
But on the next play, Knight blew through a hole right up the middle. The Colonials gave chase, but couldn’t catch him. The 98-yard touchdown and two-point run rocketed Smyrna to a 14-13 lead with 7:59 left in the third quarter.
“We ran a power play to Will,” Judy said. “Put it in your best guy’s hands. We split them, had great blocking by the offensive line. They held their blocks for 4-6 seconds like we ask them to do, and Will is a special athlete. He finished the run.”
The Eagles’ defense forced a three and out, and the Smyrna offensive line of Phillip Nix, Robert Robinson, Evan Gallaher, Terren Carter and Jerren Carter kept pounding away. Backup QB Ryan McNatt gained 17 on a keeper and threw a 33-yard pass to Charlie Taylor, and Knight bulled in from the 7 and added the two-point run for a 22-13 lead with 4:21 remaining in the third quarter.
“We fight for each other. We fight for our brothers,” Knight said. “When Nolan went down, it was just a little adversity. We had to fight harder.”
William Penn missed a 35-yard field-goal attempt, and the Eagles’ defense continued to shine. The Colonials rushed 26 times for 154 yards in the first half, but managed only 18 yards on 17 carries in the second half.
Smyrna’s hurry-up offense slowed the pace and put it away with an old-fashioned drive that started with 7:30 to play. The Eagles took 11 plays to grind 85 yards, with Knight scoring from the 8 with 2:14 left. Then he added another two-point run – his 50th deuce of the season.
“Give Smyrna credit,” Dooley said. “They played a whale of a football game. Down 13-0, lose your quarterback, who I think is one of their catalysts, and they stuck together.”
Contact Brad Myers at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter: @BradMyersTNJ.