STUARTS DRAFT – Stuarts Draft will play for a berth in the 2A state championship.
Behind three interceptions by the Draft defense and a 220-yard rushing game by Izzy Johnson, the Cougars beat East Rockingham 44-31 to advance to the state semifinals next week, although their opponent won’t be decided until Saturday night after Appomattox and Union play. Draft will host either Richlands or Union next Saturday afternoon. It will be Draft’s first appearance in the state playoffs since 1995.
East Rockingham quarterback Jaylen McNair entered the game with more than 3,200 yards passing and 41 touchdowns through the air. And on the Eagles’ first drive it looked like he would be a major problem for a stingy Cougars’ defense that hadn’t given up more than 16 points in a game this season before Friday.
McNair picked apart the Draft defense on the opening drive, going 5-for-5 for 33 yards and added a 34-yard touchdown run to stun the Cougars 1:28 into the game.
Draft regrouped though, getting a 27-yard field goal by William Wilkinson and a 24-yard touchdown run by Johnson to take a 9-7 lead. Meanwhile, the Draft defense slowed down McNair’s air game the next few possessions, forcing him into just one completion in his next six passing attempts. Included in that stretch was a pair of interceptions, including one returned 42 yards by John Gumann for a Cougar touchdown and a 16-7 lead in the second quarter.
But Draft knew they couldn’t keep McNair under control for long. The senior connected with Logan Comer for a 69-yard TD strike with 7:57 left in the first half to get his team within two points.
After the Eagles recovered an onside kick, it looked like the visitors had momentum. Then McNair gave that momentum right back, throwing his third pick of the game. Dalton McGann made him pay. McGann returned the interception 76 yards for a score, putting Draft in front 23-14.
“You can’t really think when you’re in the moment like that,” said McGann about the first pick six of his career. “You just kind of go with your instincts and do what you need to do.”
McGann said the game plan this time against McNair wasn’t much different than in the regular-season meeting when Draft won 35-14 — stop the pass. Draft didn’t stop it completely — McNair threw for 283 yards in the game — but they did force McNair into three interceptions after he had only thrown three all season before Friday night.
McNair did lead his team back down the field for another score, completing three passes for 33 yards, including a 2-yard scoring pass to get the Eagles within two at the break.
Draft started pulling away in the second half with a touchdown by Johnson and a pair of scoring runs by Areian Sanders that stretched the lead to 20. The opening drive of the second half featured Johnson on nine of the 10 plays. The senior back had 62 yards on the drive, including a nine-yard touchdown run.
“We didn’t really have many offensive plays in the first half,” Draft coach Nathan Floyd said. “We didn’t really get any rhythm. We knew the second half we needed to run at them because they were doing a good job defending our blocking down and pulling scheme. We just decided to run right at them and the offensive line did a nice job of paving the way.”
East Rock’s leading receiver Javon Butler didn’t play in the game, although no official reason was given by the Eagles. He was dressed and on the sideline Friday night.
Even without Butler, East Rock wouldn’t go easily with McNair throwing another scoring pass, this time to Christopher Rogers that cut the Draft lead to 44-31. The quick-strike ability meant the Eagles were never completely out of the game.
“I know I don’t relax,” Floyd said.
But the Cougars defense came up big again. When it appeared East Rock was on its way to another scoring pass, the receiver fumbled the ball and Robert Peck recovered it late in the fourth quarter. That sealed the victory for Stuarts Draft.
“It means a lot,” McGann said of the win. “It’s kind of exciting.”
EAST ROCKINGHAM 7 14 3 7 — 31
STUARTS DRAFT 9 14 14 7 — 44
ER — McNair 34 run (Comer kick)
SD — Wilkinson 27 FG
SD — Johnson 24 run (kick failed)
SD — Gumann 42 interception return (Wilkinson kick)
ER — Comer 69 pass from McNair (Comer kick)
SD — McGann 76 interception return (Wilkinson kick)
ER — Comer 2 pass from McNair (Comer kick)
SD — Johnson 9 run (Wilkinson kick)
SD — Sanders 5 run (Wilkinson kick)
ER — Comer 32 FG
SD — Sanders 1 run (Wilkinson kick)
ER — Rogers 12 pass from McNair (Comer kick)