LAURINBURG — Go for the win and risk field position, or play it safe, punt the ball away and hope the defense holds?
That was the dilemma Scotland head coach Richard Bailey faced as the Scots came out of a timeout and lined up for a fourth-and-2 at the North Davidson 48-yard line with 1:33 remaining in the game.
The Scots’ skipper decided to roll the dice and put the ball in the hands of his best player, Zamir White, who had rushed for over 200 yards and scored five total touchdowns leading up to that play.
White took the ball on a jet sweep and sprinted to the outside, but was stuffed for no gain, allowing the Knights to get the ball back at midfield with a chance to win.
Three plays later, North Davidson quarterback Joe Butts found running back Kennedy McKoy in the flat for the go-ahead 6-yard touchdown with 38 seconds remaining.
Scotland moved the ball to the 50-yard line but quarterback Dashaun Ferguson was sacked as time ticked off the clock, clinching a 46-42 upset win for the seventh-seeded Knights.
North Davidson improved to 12-1 overall and advanced to the third round of the North Carolina High School Athletic Association 4A playoffs with the victory, where it will play No. 3 Catholic in Charlotte next week. The Cougars edged No. 11 Seventy-First 20-13 to punch their ticket to the third round.
The Scots end their year with a 12-1 mark after a disappointing loss that saw the defense allow 30 or more points for the second straight week. The unit had only given up 30-plus once during the regular season.
But Bailey’s game-turning decision is what the folks in Laurinburg will be talking about for years to come.
“They didn’t have any timeouts — the play right there is probably to punt the ball, but we knew if we got a first down we’re taking knees and the game’s over,” Bailey said after the defeat. “We felt like we gave it to our best player, but they did a great job and blitzed the play. They got us on the edge. Zamir ran hard but there is nothing you can do … .
“We felt like we could get two yards. They hadn’t stopped us for less than two yards all night, really. Wish I called a different play, but I take responsibility for that call. I just hate it turned out the way that it did.”
Bailey had good reason to feel the way that he did — his star running back, who returned to the starting lineup after missing the opening-round win against Davie with a knee injury, rushed for almost 200 yards in the first half alone.
White showed no ill-effects of the knee ailment in his return, rushing 27 times for 237 yards and four touchdowns while catching one pass for 26 yards and another score.
“I felt brand new out there, like a new man,” White said. “Last week, I was so desparate to play. Just being on the sideline and watching that game, man, it was a crazy feeling.”
But it was the two yards he couldn’t pick up that will haunt the sophomore star during the offseason. White said he wasn’t sure what happened on the fateful run, but mentioned the Knights defense made a great read and tackled him in the backfield before he could build momentum.
After North Davidson came up with the huge stop, the Knights offense took the field and scored in 47 seconds. Butts was tackled for no gain on first down, but followed with a 45-yard strike to Nygil Dalton down the middle of the field to set North Davidson up at the Scotland 6-yard line. The next play, Butts saw a wide-open McKoy out of the corner of his eye and flipped it to his backfield mate for the winning score.
“We saw the flat player blitzing off the backside and I went out of the backfield and nobody was there,” McKoy said.
McKoy and the Knights opened the contest with a touchdown on the first drive of the game. He picked up 43 yards on his first two carries, then hauled in a 5-yard touchdown reception to give North Davidson the early lead.
But Scotland tied it up on the next play from scrimmage, as White sprinted 71 yards to paydirt to knot the contest at 7-all.
The Scots’ defense, which allowed 36 points to Davie a week ago, continued to struggle as Butts drove the Knights right back down the field in five plays. After throwing a 55-yard to Garrett Griffith on third-and-long earlier in the drive, the junior found Griffith for a 14-yard score two plays later.
Scotland punted on its next offense series, but forced a North Davidson three-and-out to get the ball back. The Scots reached the end zone once more when White ran for an 11-yard score.
Butts connected with Griffith for another long gain on the Knights’ next series, this time for 52 yards to enter Scotland territory. The Scots appeared to hold North Davidson to a field-goal attempt, but the Knights executed a perfect fake and kicker Christopher Dunn dove past the pylon for an 8-yard touchdown run with 10:38 to go in the second quarter.
Scotland again answered with a score, as Bailey fed White the ball six times during the eight-play possession. White galloped into the end zone for a 16-yard touchdown to make it 21-21.
Butts, who threw for 172 yards in the first half, directed a 12-play drive that resulted in another field-goal attempt. Dunn split the uprights on the 32-yard kick to put the Knights on top once more.
But it wouldn’t stay that way, as the Scots regained the advantage just before halftime. Ferguson tossed a 26-yard touchdown pass to — who else — White with eight seconds left before the break to make it 28-24 entering the third quarter.
Scotland appeared to take control of the game on its opening second-half series. The Scots put together a 16-play drive that burned nearly eight minutes off the clock, and White capped it with a 7-yard run for his fifth touchdown of the evening. The score gave the Scots their biggest lead of the game at 35-24.
The Knights never faltered, though, as Butts completed passes of 37 and 14 yards to put North Davidson right back in scoring position. McKoy broke the plane on a 3-yard touchdown run, then Butts hit a wide-open McKoy for the two-point conversion to close the deficit to 35-32 with 1:18 remaining in the third quarter.
“We came in with a great game plan and we just executed it,” McKoy said.
Scotland punted on its next series, but North Davidson gave the ball right back when Butts fumbled on a scramble attempt. The Scots took advantage of the crucial mistake, as Syheam McQueen took a Ferguson handoff on a jet sweep and raced into the end zone for a 20-yard touchdown.
Nursing a two-score lead with 8:13 remaining, Scotland’s defense couldn’t get the stop it needed to seal the game.
Butts rebounded from his fumble to throw a 17-yard touchdown to Dalton to cut into the Scots’ lead. Earlier in the series, the North Davidson quarterback completed an 11-yard pass to McKoy on fourth down to extend the drive, then Scotland’s Mitchell Smith committed a personal foul penalty to put the Knights in prime scoring position.
North Davidson dug into its bag of trick on the ensuing kickoff when coach Mark Holcomb called for an onside kick. The Knights recovered the ball at midfield and their offense trotted back onto the field with a chance to retake the lead.
Facing a fourth-and-4 at Scotland’s 34-yard line, the Knights were thwarted by the Scots’ best defensive back, Trevon Gibson. The senior broke up a Butts pass to give the ball back to the offense.
Ferguson picked up a first down on third-and-1 to force North Davidson to burn its remaining timeouts. With a new set of downs and the chance to milk the clock, White picked up three yards on his first carry. Ferguson was stopped for no gain on second down, then McQueen picked up five on third down to set up the pivotal fourth-and-2 stop by the North Davidson defense.
“Coach (Holcomb) challenged us to play with great effort and give everything we have and that’s what we did,” McKoy said. “We got the win and we were lucky. We’re looking to get back Monday and go to work.”
Bailey credited Knights for their execution in all three phases, and said they “are a great team.”
“It’s not what we wanted, but football is like that,” Bailey said. “It’s a tough game, you learn a lot of life lessons and we’re going to have to learn to rebound and come back from this.”
Logan Martinez can be reached at 910-506-3170. Follow him on Twitter @L_Martinez13.