NEWARK – The Smyrna Eagles wound up flying high again, without taking flight.
Smyrna rode its ground game to a second straight DIAA Division I championship on Saturday, piling up 458 yards on 70 carries on the way to a 36-14 victory over Middletown on a windy afternoon at Delaware Stadium.
The second-seeded Eagles (12-0) earned their 22nd consecutive victory the old-fashioned way — between the tackles. Junior Will Knight grounded and pounded for 241 yards and four touchdowns on 35 carries. Fellow junior Leddie Brown added 176 yards and the final TD on 26 carries.
“It was the game plan,” Smyrna coach Mike Judy said. “We felt we had better mismatches at the O-line and D-line, so we wanted to exploit those.”
They did. The top-seeded Cavaliers (11-1) did their best to adjust, but ultimately couldn’t stop Smyrna’s runners.
“They have two [NCAA] Division I running backs. Why wouldn’t you?” Middletown coach Mark DelPercio said. “They’re very good football players. It didn’t surprise me.”
Smyrna quarterback Nolan Henderson had been averaging 17.4 pass attempts per game, and had thrown for 2,313 yards and 32 touchdowns this season. On this day, his first pass came with 3:50 left in the first half. He completed 3 of 9 for just 18 yards — and he was fine with it.
“I don’t care if I throw the ball once, as long as we come out with the win,” Henderson said. “We knew we had to run the ball well, and we knew our line would get a good push. We kind of rode that to victory.”
Middletown stopped Smyrna at the Cavaliers 17 on its first drive, but there was no stopping the Eagles the second time. Smyrna covered 74 yards on 11 running plays, with Knight going the final 8 yards. The two-point run failed, leaving the Eagles with a 6-0 lead.
That changed quickly, as Middletown’s Jeffrey Lockwood caught Smyrna’s onside kick in stride and screamed 44 yards to the 1. Kedrick Whitehead plunged in on the next play, and Justin Gotthold’s PAT gave the Cavaliers a 7-6 lead with 2:12 left in the first quarter.
The Eagles punched right back, grinding out 59 yards on 10 more runs. Knight was fortunate when teammate Emon Roberts recovered his fumble on second-and-4 at the Cavaliers 14. The running back more than made up for it by scoring on the next play, but Middletown stopped the two-pointer again to stay within 12-7.
Smyrna defensive back Jacob Soroko gave the ball back to his offense with an interception two plays later. The Eagles cashed in the turnover with a six-play, 28-yard drive, with Knight’s 4-yard TD and two-point run making it 20-7 with 7:36 left in the first half.
The Cavaliers answered with a nice drive, but couldn’t score after earning first-and-goal at the 6. The Eagles batted down a third-down pass, and Josh Hutchinson and Daniel Quiros sacked Middletown QB Drew Fry on fourth down.
“Offensively, I would have liked to punch it in to help our defense out some,” DelPercio said. “To me that was one of the keys, keeping their offense off the field.”
Middletown did punch it in on its second drive of the second half. The Cavaliers went 75 yards in nine plays, with Fry completing a 25-yarder to Nick Johnston and scrambling for 13 on a third-and-2. Whitehead scored from the 2 to pull Middletown within 20-14 with 6:35 left in the third quarter.
The Cavaliers got the ball two more times with a chance to take the lead. But the Eagles’ Stephen Whaley recovered a fumble, then Middletown had to punt.
Knight expanded the margin early in the fourth quarter, showing great patience before a hole opened up on the right side. The junior burst through and scored a 46-yard touchdown, and Brown’s two-point run made it 28-14 with 7:51 to play.
“The offensive line, they gave me a big hole so I could see,” Knight said. “I give props to my receivers for blocking all the way down the field.”
Jake Kaiser recovered a Middletown fumble on the ensuing kickoff to put the Smyrna offense back in business. The Eagles mowed 36 yards in seven more runs, with Brown scoring from 16 yards out for a 36-14 cushion with 4:40 remaining.
The Eagles’ offensive line of Jerren Carter, Brent Young, Ty-Kee Moore, Robbie Robinson and Jamie Fields paved the way.
“We knew they were going to have to rely on us this week,” Carter said. “They told us it’s going to be run game, run game. They don’t respect the run game enough. … We just ran it down their throat.”
The Eagles’ defense held Middletown to 196 total yards, and Knight was his usual spectacular self.
“Will Knight is obviously an amazing player,” Judy said. “He’s a really good running back. You get the ball in his hands, and he can do stuff for you.”
Middletown’s 11-game winning streak came to an end. Fry completed 11 of 27 for 121 yards, with Johnston catching four for 61 yards. Whitehead gained 61 yards on 14 carries.
“I’d rather lose with these guys than win with anybody else,” DelPercio said. “I love these guys. I’m very proud of these guys. They did some great things. It hurts, but there’s nothing for them to be ashamed of.”
Knight gave all the credit to his offensive line, then reflected on the last two years. He stood on this same field last year, basking in the glow of Smyrna’s 32-26, overtime win over Salesianum for its first state football title.
“It feels great,” Knight said. “It shows everybody that we’re not just one shot and done. We’re here to stay.”
Contact Brad Myers at email@example.com. Follow on Twitter: @BradMyersTNJ.