By David Rogers. HUDSON, N.C. — Turnovers can define momentum in football. Watauga took advantage of five miscues by South Caldwell — in just the first half — on Sept. 29, the Pioneers storming to a decisive, 56-7 win in the opening game of Northwestern Conference play.
Both of the longtime NWC adversaries went 4-1 in their non-conference schedules to open the 2022 season. Both teams feature balanced attacks that lean heavily on the ground game.
That is where most of the similarities ended in this match-up. The Thursday night lights — the tilt moved up a day because of Hurricane Ian’s forecasted arrival on Friday — shone brightly on Watauga.
Just in the first quarter, the Pioneers poached two interceptions, recovered a muffed kickoff return, and forced a turnover on downs. Then, early in the second period, a quarterback sack by senior defensive end Isaiah Shirley on 4th-and-9 led to yet another short field to paydirt for the visitors. In a virtual blink of an eye (almost 10 minutes were still left in the first half), Watauga rocketed to a 28-0 lead.
The Pioneers were never behind. Receiving the opening kickoff, they marched 65 yards on 10 running plays before running back Will Curtis started the scoring barrage with a 3-yard plunge over the goal line. It was a drive that saw Curtis and quarterback Maddox Greene taking turns running the football. Behind the offensive line’s precisely executed blocking schemes, the duo methodically chewed up gridiron real estate in relatively small chunks. The longest gain by Greene was an 18-yard keeper, while the longest by Curtis was 13 yards. It was an efficient drive that took just over three and a half minutes off the clock.
South Caldwell’s response looked promising at the start with leading rusher Suan Moore helping the Spartans advance from their own 34 yard line, to midfield. But that is where the evening’s foibles began for the home team. Along the Spartans’ right sideline, quarterback Anderson Raynor had a pass intercepted by Watauga defensive back Ben Gosky. It took just four plays for the Boone boys to take advantage, culminating with an electric, 34-yard pass from Greene to wide receiver Jackson Pryor. With another successful Grant Kight PAT kick, the Pioneers had a 14-0 lead and the game was just 8 minutes old.
And it immediately got worse for the Spartans, better for Watauga. On the ensuing kickoff that could be recorded as an onside kick, the ball was mishandled by the receiving team and recovered by Aiden Watson for the Pioneers, at the South Caldwell 49.
With another short field in front of them, it took Greene, Curtis & Co. just three plays to travel the distance, highlighted by runs of 21 and 14 yards by Curtis — and extending the Pioneer lead to 21-0 with still three minutes remaining in the opening quarter.
Down by three touchdowns as the first quarter was coming to a close, the South Caldwell coaching staff opted to try and close the gap on the ensuing possession by “going for it” on 4th-and-7 from the Watauga 24 yard line. Any hopes were dashed when Raynor’s pass fluttered to the ground, incomplete, and with the Pioneers back in possession of the football.
Of course, Watauga capitalized as the game clock turned the corner into the second quarter. It was run-run-run for the Pioneers, again featuring Curtis and Greene, with Curtis finishing off the 8-play drive with another punch-in TD from two yards out.
At 28-0 with still 9:45 left in the first half, any Spartan hopes for a comeback against the Pioneer onslaught were dimming, fast. The Watauga student section’s chanting message, “I believe that we will win! I believe that we will win!” on most nights may have been premature, but for this game Watauga was making a statement.
In a poignant moment afterwards, Watauga head coach Ryan Habich awarded a game ball to senior Colin Phelps and his family, including assistant coach Jason Phelps. Young Phelps suffered a neck injury against South Caldwell during the 2021 season that ended his season and prevented him from playing football his senior year. Habich added that the year before his arrival at Watauga, in the fall of 2012, South Caldwell had defeated the Pioneers, 55-15, on the same Spartan field, pointing out that there is a long and storied history between the two schools, even a Northwestern Conference rivalry.
South Caldwell finally got on the scoreboard still early in the second quarter on a 7-play drive that advanced the ball from the SC 29 to the end zone, aided by a 15-yard “roughing the passer” penalty, but the TD scamper by Sylas Scruggs and the PAT kick by Andrew Pruette would prove all the Spartans could manage in terms of scoring for the rest of the night.
After two more TD runs by Curtis and yet another by Greene on a QB keeper, a fourth quarter highlight would follow: sophomore backup QB, Matthew Habich, scored his first varsity TD on an 11-yard maneuver through Spartan traffic. And it came just moments after his father had scolded him for not properly setting his offensive linemen when they went to the line of scrimmage. Coach Habich called a timeout, all the while not sparing his voice in having his son do two pushups in the middle of the field during the chewing-out — and the younger Habich responded with a nifty run to the end zone, Watauga’s final score of the night that put the game out of reach for the Spartans, 56-7.
In taking advantage of the Spartan miscues that resulted in “extra” offensive opportunities, Watauga rolled up 488 yards of total offense, 342 rushing and 146 yards passing. Coach Habich explained later that while they run the ball a lot, when the opposing team stacks the interior of the line of scrimmage with extra run defenders it opens up passing opportunities.
The Pioneer defense limited South Caldwell to just 218 yards of total offense, 123 rushing and 95 through the air. Losing one of four fumbles on the night and having three passes intercepted ultimately short-circuited the Spartan offensive efforts.
Next up for Watauga is a trip to Taylorsville to face yet another longtime rival, Alexander Central. The Pioneers got by the Cougars, 28-21, a year ago on their way to a sweep of the NWC slate before losing to Cuthbertson in the first round of the state playoffs, but Alexander Central in recent years has proven one of Watauga’s most challenging conference opponents. The Pioneers’ last loss to the Cougars was in the fall of 2017, a 33-38 thriller also in Taylorsville, when Watauga finished 5-2 and runner-up to ACHS’ 6-1 NWC championship campaign. It was also the last time the Pioneers didn’t win the conference title.
South Caldwell moves on to a date in Morganton against Freedom on Oct. 7. The Patriots lost, 43-20, to Hibriten in their conference opener in Lenoir.
SELECTED TEAM STATS
- Total Offense: WAT 488, SC 218
- Passing Yards: WAT 146, SC 95
- Rushing Yards: WAT 342, SC 123
- Offensive Plays: WAT 55, SC 51
- Penalties: WAT 9-85, SC 5-70
- Turnovers: WAT 0, SC 4
- Time of Possession: WAT 25:41, SC 22:19
- 3rd Down Conversions: WAT 5/7 (71.4%), SC 1.11 (9.1%)
- 4th Down Conversions: WAT 1/1 (100%), SC 0/6 (0.0%)
SELECTED INDIVIDUAL STATS
- WAT Maddox Greene 7-11-146, 1 TD
- SC Anderson Raynor 6-17-63, 0 TDs, 3 INTs
- SC Ben Ellison 1-1-32
- WAT Will Curtis 24 carries, 181 yards, 5 TDs
- WAT Maddox Greene, 11 carries, 93 yards, 1 TD
- SC Suan Moore, 4 carries, 33 yards
- SC Anderson Raynor, 6 carries, 20 yards
- SC Sylas Scruggs, 3 carries, 19 yards, 1 TD
- WAT Matthew Habich, 2 carries, 17 yards, 1 TD
- WAT Jackson Pryor, 6 catches, 117 yards, 1 TD
- SC J.B. Robbins, 3 catches, 64 yards
- WAT Cole Horine, 1 catch, 29 yards
- SC Tyler Eggers, 2 catches, 18 yards
WATAUGA DEFENSIVE HIGHLIGHTS
- Isaiah Shirley 5.5 tackles, 1 sack, 0.5 tackle for loss
- Cole Horine 5 tackles
- Trathan Gragg 4 tackles, 2 tackles for loss
- Carlton Horine 2 INTs
- Ben Gosky 1 INT