ELIZABETHTOWN — The 15th annual Battle for the Bell went the way it had gone for the 13 previous seasons, but it wasn’t easy.
Xavia McDowell rushed for 133 yards and a touchdown on 23 carries to lead East Bladen to a hard-fought 14-3 win over visiting West Bladen in the Four County Conference regular-season finale.
The win improves the Eagles to 9-2 overall and 5-2 in the conference, while the Knights fall to 6-5, 3-4. Both teams expect to be playing Friday in the first round of the state’s Class 2-A playoffs.
After West Bladen opened the game with a three-and-out, East Bladen took over at its own 48. On a drive that featured 15 plays, three offsides calls against the Knights, a fourth-down conversion and ate up about 10 minutes of clock, the Eagles ran out of momentum at the West Bladen 3.
The Knights managed to move the ball out to its own 23 before punting early in the second quarter, but East Bladen fumbled the ball away on the second play, and David Gittens recovered for the Knights at the East Bladen 41. Jeremiah Purdie gained 10 yards and, three plays later, Malique McDowell ran for 11 to the Eagles’ 9. West Bladen pushed to the East Bladen 6 and faced a fourth down and goal, but a fake field goal went awry when quarterback Stefan McDonald’s pass went high.
East Bladen took over and moved out to its 15 before punting, and the Knights took over at the Eagles’ 34. But on third and 5, East Bladen’s Jonathan Melvin intercepted a pass at the line of scrimmage.
The Eagles ran out the clock and the two teams went into halftime knotted at 0-0.
“Our defense played great,” said West Bladen coach Russell Dove. “We need 24 more minutes of that and the offense needs to start clicking.”
“Whatever we did in the first half, we need to do better in the second half,” said East Bladen coach Robby Priest.
Neither team got much going in their first possession of the third quarter. But when the Eagles got the ball at the West Bladen 44 to start its second possession, Xavia McDowell took the quick handoff from quarterback Alex Coates and rammed straight up the middle — and didn’t stop until he’d crossed the goal line. Jesus Ramos booted the extra point and East Bladen led 7-0 with 7:51 left in the quarter.
The Knights started their next possession at their own 36 and began to march steadily. Malique McDowell picked up 15 yards on four straight carries, James Moore ran for 7, Purdie rushed for 7, McDowell got 15 more on two carries and, before the Eagles knew it, West Bladen was at the East Bladen 13.
But the drive went sour from there, as two runs and an incomplete pass left the Knights facing a fourth and 9. Ray Jones came on and booted a 31-yard field goal to pull West Bladen to within 7-3 with 40 seconds left in the third quarter.
The Eagles took over at their own 40 and answered with a 60-yard, nine-play drive that culminated with a 7-yard run by Nikita Owens, who fumbled at the West Bladen 11 — but the ball was scooped up by Sincere SMith and carried the rest of the way for the Eagles. Ramos kicked the PAT to give East Bladen a 14-3 lead with 7:26 left in the game.
That seemed to take the wind out of the Knights’ sails. McDonald got his only completion of the night for 15 yards on West Bladen’s first play — caught by T.J. Kemp — but two plays later, his next pass was intercepted by the Eagles’ Trevor Lloyd and returned to the Knights’ 22.
East Bladen marched to the Knights’ 5 and sent Ramos out for a 22-yard field on fourth down. But a bad snap nixed the kick and West Bladen took over at its own 11.
Malique McDowell rushed for 17 yards on the first play and two more runs put the Knights at their own 36. But McDonald was sacked by Phillip Rhodie on third down and a pass fell incomplete on fourth down to give the Eagles the ball at the West 27.
East Bladen moved to the Knights’ 8 before taking a knee to run out the clock.
“We went back to more old-school, East Bladen football in the second half; just kept hitting ‘em,” Priest said. “We got pretty lucky on that second touchdown, but Sincere has a nose for the football and a high IQ for sports in general. He was in the right place at the right time.
“And Xavia had a coming out party tonight,” he added. “He’s a good, big fullback and we like those here. I’m happy we’ll have him two more years.”
Dove said that, despite the loss, he couldn’t be prouder of his team.
“Always proud,” he said. “The kids really wanted this one bad and they played at a tougher level tonight. That one touchdown was a back-breaker.”
Xavia McDowell’s 133 yards were a major portion of East Bladen’s 216 yards of offense, all on the ground. Owens had 41 yards on 12 carries, while Kyle Tatum had 31 yards on 10 carries.
West Bladen rushed for 134 yards in the game, led by Malique McDowell’s 67 yards on 13 carries. McDonald was 1-for-10 through the air for 15 yards and two interceptions.
W. Curt Vincent can be reached by calling 910-862-4163.