By Jason Avery
STRONG - Too many self-inflicted wounds ultimately torpedoed Strong’s postseason hopes, as Bearden scored touchdowns on defense and special teams along with a Hail Mary to down the Bulldogs 26-14 in the 8-2A finale for both schools at Jerry Burson Field on Friday night.
The Bears (6-4, 4-3) clinched the 8-2A’s final playoff spot with the win, and will play at McCrory as the league’s No. 4 seed next week.
Parkers Chapel will be the No. 5 seed and play at 6-2A champion Hazen in their playoff opener.
The Bulldogs (5-5, 2-5) saw their season come to a close with the loss, missing the playoffs for the second straight season and for the third time in the last four years.
Strong turned the ball over four times, had a punt blocked that resulted in Bearden’s first touchdown of the game, as well as have a dropped snap on another punt that led to Bearden taking over in Strong territory.
Yet for all of the miscues, the Bulldogs trailed 12-8 and were driving late in the third quarter.
LeAndrew Greer, who racked up 130 yards on 24 carries, helped spearhead a drive with Desmond Newton and Derrion Davis with Davis’ 8-yard run giving the Bulldogs the ball at Bearden’s 32.
But with the play over, Strong was whistled for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, effectively ending the drive and all of their momentum.
“It’s typical for us this year. This is how our year has been,” said Strong coach Greg Anthony. “We just score and cut it 12-8 and we’re driving, and we get a stupid penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct.”
Trey Smith, who helped lead a stout effort by the Bulldogs’ defense, sacked Tyler Berry on a fourth-down play on the ensuing possession to give the Bulldogs the ball back at their 49, but Strong went three-and-out, and Bearden’s CamRon Byes put the Bears in business with a nifty 51-yard return, reversing his field and finding plenty of open space after seemingly being hemmed in along the sideline.
Starting at Strong’s 31 with 10:55 to play, the Bears stayed with their ground game, as Berry scampered for 12 yards before Jaylen Wade picked up a third-and-1 with a tough 4-yard run.
Later faced with fourth-and-goal from the 3, Berry found a seam in the middle of Strong’s defense and scored to give the Bears some breathing room.
Now trailing 18-8 with 6:51 to play, the Bulldogs were in dire need of a scoring drive, but the Bears’ defense sealed the victory.
The Bulldogs drove to Bearden’s 30, but a holding penalty slowed Strong’s progress.
On fourth-and-14 from Bearden’s 40, Garrett McWhorter got free and quickly flushed Newton from the pocket.
The senior then tried to get off a pass, but was hit by McWhorter as he threw, and Gage Word picked off the pass and raced 55 yards to paydirt. Berry’s run on the two-point conversion made it 26-8.
Strong scored on the ensuing possession with Newton throwing a 20-yard touchdown pass to Greer with 1:50 left, but the Bears were able to run out the clock and clinch their spot in the postseason.
Early on, it was penalties that hurt the Bulldogs.
On the second possession, a holding penalty backed the Bulldogs up to their 11.
Forced to punt, Drake Wilson crashed through the line and blocked the punt, and Cohen Word recovered the ball in the end zone to open the scoring.
Strong reached Bearden territory on their next two drives only to see interceptions being them to an end.
Trailing 6-0 after the opening quarter, Smith recovered a fumble at Bearden’s 34, but on Strong’s second play, Robert Miller recovered a fumble to give the Bears the ball right back.
Late in the first half, controversy ensued.
On third-and-1 from Strong’s 47, Wade was dropped for an 11-yard loss, and there was a penalty against Bearden on the play.
Anthony indicated that he wanted to decline the penalty and set up fourth down, but things didn’t turn out that way.
“What happened on that is I asked the white hat after the flag, ‘Where’s the ball?’” Anthony said.
“He said it’s fourth down and the ball right here if you decline it, or if you take the penalty, it will be third down from I think it was two yards shorter or whatever it is.
“While me and him are talking, the guy in the middle marks off the 10 yards, so I told the white hat that we’re declining it, and I want fourth down.
“So now the white hat is saying fourth down, but the guy that had already marked off the 10 yards is hollering that it’s third down.
“I had to get a timeout to go out there and find out what was going on, so they decided since he had marked it off already, just to make it third down instead of giving us fourth down.
“It was a mess up on their part, but that’s just part of football.”
With 1:01 left in the half, Strong started at their 20, and Greer quickly broke free for 20 yards over the left side.
However, a holding penalty on the next play pushed the Bulldogs back to their 31.
Newton picked up 10 yards, but after two incomplete passes, the Bulldogs were faced with fourth-and-10 from their 41.
Anthony elected to go for it, and after an incomplete pass, the Bears got the ball with 4.5 seconds left.
“I looked across and I saw third down on the marker, so I thought we had two downs to go and it was third down,” Anthony said.
“As we’re breaking the huddle and are getting lined up, I look up and the guy is flipping it to fourth down, and I’m hollering to get a timeout, but the referee didn’t give me a timeout because the ball was snapped at the time I’m hollering, so there again it was just miscommunication between us and the chain gang or the referees, because the referees were hollering third down too, and then the one on Bearden’s sideline said it was fourth down, so they flipped it.”
Then the Bears made the most of the last play of the half.
Berry fired a long pass down the left sideline that was originally intended for Davarius Hughes, but Greer got a hand on the ball and knocked it away from the Bearden receiver.
However, Byes was able to making a diving catch off the deflection for a touchdown that gave the Bears a 12-0 lead going into halftime, although Anthony said that his players indicated that the ball hit the ground.
“The touchdown they scored before halftime, I had three players say it hit the ground and it bounced up into his arms, and he rolled over and he showed it to the ref, and they gave him the touchdown,” Anthony said.
“We feel like we knocked the ball down. He was diving for it, it hit on the nose and bounced up in his arms and then he rolled over and held it up and the referee from the backside gave him the touchdown.”
Strong opened the second half by forcing a three-and-out before embarking on their first scoring drive, a 13-play, 63-yard march that took 6:40 to complete with Newton plowing his way into the end zone on a 1-yard run on fourth-and-goal.
Greer’s successful carry on the two-point conversion cut Bearden’s lead to 12-8, but that would be as close as the Bulldogs would get.
Newton finished with 68 yards and a touchdown on 23 carries while going 4-of-17 passing for 62 yards.
Lavonte Washington caught two passes for 27 yards for the Bulldogs, who had 263 yards of total offense.
Berry had 99 yards on 16 carries while going 3-of-13 passing for 62 yards for the Bears, who had 128 yards of total offense.
Although the season is now over for the Bulldogs, Anthony is already looking forward to next year.
“We’re losing nine seniors, and I don’t know if I’ve ever lost nine players the caliber of these kids,” Anthony said.
“I’m not just talking about on the field, I’m talking about off the field.
“The valedictorian is in that group. We’re working on ACT scores to get those up, but all of them have got a chance to go visit and possibly go play again. That’s all positives for them.
“The younger ones got a lot of playing time, so we’ve gotten better there.
“We’ve gotten better through the offseason with the weights, and we kept lifting two, three times a week.
“There’s going to be a drop off by no stretch. You can’t lose nine like we’re losing and not have a drop off, but I’m confident.
“I think that the sophomores and juniors have really bought in to what we’re doing, and they rode the coattails of the seniors this year.
“I think they’re looking forward to it, and I’m excited. I really am.”