LANDRUM – Fireworks, unexpected and unexplained, lit up the night sky Friday in Landrum, creating the perfect backdrop for Polk County fans celebrating the Wolverines’ first victory of the 2013 season.
It took several minutes for the smoke from those shells to waft over the playing field, its advance perhaps delayed by all those exhaling on the Polk County sideline.
As the clock reached zero on the Wolverines’ 21-15 win over Landrum, head coach Bruce Ollis bent backwards, looked to the heavens and let loose a long, deep sign of relief. After an 0-3 start to the 2013 season, the first time since 2002 a Polk squad had gone so long without a win to begin a season, the Wolverines were able to once again celebrate.
“These guys are used to success,” Ollis said. “I give them a lot of credit for putting up with me. I haven’t been very much fun to be around. But winning cures a lot of ills.”
The Polk County-Landrum series is becoming one of those special rivalries that only high school football can produce. The two schools sit just 13 miles apart, separated only by a state line, and players and fans in the two communities live and work side-by-side. There were plenty of occasions Friday night, off and on the field, when Cardinal red and Wolverine blue mixed together in conversation.
Polk County has dominated the rivalry in recent years, winning 10 of the last 11 meetings, yet still came into this year’s clash with every reason to be concerned about not being able to repeat last year’s 28-21 win. Landrum entered off a 49-34 win over Walhalla, its spread offense being expertly guided by quarterback Aaron Bryant, who had more than 500 yards of total offense in that win over Walhalla. Polk, meanwhile, surrendered more than 300 yards rushing in its 42-33 loss last week to R-S Central.
But the Wolverine defense did its job Friday night, at no point more so than with the game on the line in the final quarter.
Fueled by the momentum of scoring with 6:20 left to cut Polk’s lead to 21-15, an energized Landrum defense forced Polk County to go three-and-out on its next series. A short Polk punt gave the Cardinals great field position at the Polk 44 with 4:22 left in the game.
Bryant went to work, moving the Cardinals to the Wolverine 13 with in just three plays. There, though, the Polk defense stiffened. Blitzing defensive back Reece Schlabach on all four plays in the series, the Wolverines stopped Bryant for a yard on first down, forced an incompletion on second down, then sacked Bryant for a three-yard loss on third down to bring up a fourth-and-12. After a Landrum timeout, the Wolverines broke through to force Bryant from the pocket, and his scrambling pass sailed out of bounds to give the ball back to Polk with 2:43 remaining.
“This is the first time all year that the defense has made a play with the game on the line,” Ollis said. “We had some opportunities against Shelby and against Asheville and against R-S Central last week and we couldn’t come through. I give (assistant coach Jamie Thompson) a lot of credit for putting the players in the position to make the plays.”
The Wolverines still needed a first down to run out the clock. With a third-and-three at the 22, Schlabach rolled to his right and found fullback Jordan Smith in the flat. Smith made the reception, then made a nifty move to break free along the Landrum sideline. The play eventually gained 30 yards and gave the Wolverines the first down they needed. Schlabach then gave them another a play later with a 20-yard scamper.
And then came those fireworks. As Polk fans celebrated with 21 seconds left, fireworks suddenly burst in the air behind the Wolverines’ stands. The shells appeared to originate from the woods behind Landrum’s stadium, but no one in the stadium, especially those on the Polk County sideline, had any idea how they came to be there.
“I don’t know where those came from,” Ollis said. “In 34 years of coaching, I have never seen fireworks at a football game.
“We gave Reese a run-pass option (on the third-down play). We give the quarterback the option to run the naked bootleg or have the fullback in the flat to throw to him. It’s great that we got that play off, and Jordan made a great run.”
You could almost argue that the fireworks display was the second of the night, the first being the 21-point barrage that Polk unleashed in a seven-minute span of the first half. Taking over at the Landrum 25 late in the first quarter, the Wolverines began to drive. Schlabach found Anthiony Carson for a 28-yard pass on the first play of the second quarter, then teamed with Carson again on fourth-and-10 at the Landrum 35, finding the senior receiver breaking deep toward the Polk sideline. Carson stretched for the pass, juggled it for a moment, then secured before going out of bounds at the Landrum 6. Two plays later, Smith powered over the left side of the Polk line for a 2-yard score, and Anthony Marino’s extra point gave the Wolverines a 7-0 lead with 9:50 left in the half.
Landrum failed to gain a first down on its next drive, with Damian Jackson sacking Bryant on third down. Polk took over at its 22 and began again to drive. Mixing the running of Donte Poston with Schlabach’s passing, the Wolverines moved to the Landrum 43. There, on first down, Schlabach lofted a pass deep downfield to sophomore Jamal Tanner, back in the lineup after missing the previous two games. Tanner leapt above a Landrum defender to make the reception, then bounced off that defender into the end zone. Marino’s extra point made it 14-0 with 5:30 remaining.
And the defense delivered again. On Landrum’s second play of its next drive, Bryant’s pass across the middle of the field was intercepted by Bryce Martin, who returned the theft to the Landrum 37. After an illegal motion penalty began the possession, Poston ran five straight plays, gaining 29 yards, moving the Wolverines to the 13, where they faced a fourth-and-3. Polk lined up in a spread formation, with Schlabach taking a deep snap. The senior quarterback hesitated a moment, then burst through the Landrum defense and into the end zone. Marino, again, converted the extra point to give Polk a 21-0 lead with 2:34 left in the half.
“(The start) certainly built a lot of positive momentum for us,” Ollis said. “We probably did a poor job of keeping it going. We were able to play keepaway with some good drives. We did that in the first half against Shelby. We know that Bryant is an outstanding athlete. He has excellent ability to make plays, so it was important for us to keep the ball away from them.
“And Anthony Marino did a great job kicking. Going three-for-three on PATs is huge for us.”
Landrum responded with a seven-play, 57-yard drive, scoring with 32 seconds left on a Bryant 1-yard run. The Cardinals then appeared set to score again after stopping Polk inches short of a first down at the Landrum 5 midway through the third quarter. Taking over with 5:26 left in the third, Landrum kept the ball the rest of the period, four times converting on third or fourth down to reach the Polk 14 at the end of the quarter. Facing fourth-and-three at the 14 on the first play of the fourth period, the drive’s 17th play, Bryant was forced from the pocket. Scrambling, evading defenders, he finally fired a pass toward Jacob Lanning at the goal line. But Lanning couldn’t come up with the catch, and the Polk defense had held.
The Wolverines then punted on their next possession, giving Landrum the ball at the 37. Bryant drove the Cardinals to the 22, where he teamed with JoJo Wilkins on a picture perfect stop-and-go route, Wilkins making an outstanding catch in the end zone for the score. The extra point made it 21-15 with 6:20 remaining.
Schlabach finished the game 9-of-19 for 179 yards and a touchdown. Donte Poston ran for 109 yards to pace the Polk ground game.
Bryant finished the night with 185 yards passing and 125 rushing. Lanning, his top target, caught nine passes for 133 yards.
“We talked all week about staying the course and not giving up,” Ollis said. “This football team hung in with me this week. It’s great to win.”