ELIZABETHTOWN — It was playoff football at its best, and it all came down to a single moment — a moment that all but froze in time with the hearts of fans on both sides of Lenon Fisher Stadium stuck in the throats and nary a sound being made. On one side of that moment, East Bladen fans saw the season flash before their collective eyes; on the other side of that moment, it was the Graham fans who saw their season come to an end.
All of that drama took place in overtime Friday, as the Eagles and visiting Red Devils found themselves knotted at 28-28 when regulation came to a close.
East Bladen got the ball first in overtime at the 10 yard line and took three plays to score. Kyle Tatum ran twice for 4 yards before quarterback Ty McMillian zipped a pass into the end zone that Sincere Smith made a diving catch on for the touchdown. Jesus Ramos booted the extra point to put the Eagles up 35-28.
The Red Devils struck quickly, scoring on its first play — and then made the fateful decision to go for two.
“I would have done the same thing,” said East Bladen coach Robby Priest. “None of us were surprised. We switched up the defense and they ran the same play they’d just run.”
The two-point conversion came up one-half yard short, sending East Bladen players, coaches and fans in a frenzied jubilation.
“They were the real deal,” Priest said. “They’ve got some playmakers who gave us a lot of trouble.
“But we have something special at that end,” Priest added, nodding toward the west end of the field, where the overtime was played.
Graham came into the Class 2-A East first-round contest with a 4-7 record and seeded No. 10, but they gave the 9-2 and No. 7 seed East Bladen all it could handle.
After the two teams traded possessions without threatening to open the game, the Red Devils took its second possession at their own 40 and marched 60 yards in six plays. After the extra point, Graham led 7-0 with 4:01 left in the first quarter.
East Bladen got good field possession when Tatum ran the ensuing kickoff back 30 yards to the Eagles’ 45 and Nikita Owens took over from there, rushing seven times for 43 yards and touchdown. Ramos added the PAT to knot the game at 7-7 with 43 seconds left in the quarter.
But Graham answered fast, using those 43 seconds on two plays — the last of which was a 59-yard touchdown run with no time left on the clock. The point after was good to give the visitors a 14-7 edge.
The Eagles responded with a 12-play, 55-yard touchdown drive that featured a fourth-down conversion and a 10-yard run to pay dirt by Xavia McDowell. Ramos kicked the extra point to tie the game at 14-14 with 6:34 left in the half.
Graham got a huge kickoff return that put the Red Devils in business at the East Bladen 16. But after moving to the Eagles’ 1 in three plays, Graham began to implode. A penalty moved the ball to the 6, a fumble moved the ball to the 14 and a touchdown was called back on another penalty that took the ball back to the 23. A 33-yard field goal try was short, giving East Bladen the ball at its own 20.
“That was a big stop,” East Bladen’s defensive coordinator Mark Little told his players as they came off.
The Eagles all but ran out the clock, using 15 plays and converting a pair of fourth downs before a third fourth-down conversion came up short just before the half expired.
East Bladen got the ball to start the second half and used 4:53 to run 10 plays and find the end zone. Tatum ran the ball nine of those plays, gaining 59 yards and scoring on a 13-yard run. Ramos kicked the point after to give the Eagles a 21-14 edge.
Graham was thwarted on its next possession when the Tatum Show continued with an interception he returned 18 yards to the East Bladen 43. But the march stalled after reaching the Red Devils’ 38 and a fourth-down try came up short.
The Red Devils took over and a 62-yard drive straddled the third and fourth quarters before a touchdown and extra point with 10:37 to play in the game knotted the score again at 21-21.
Graham’s onsides kick was recovered by the Eagles at midfield and a 4-minute, 50-yard march — highlighted by McDowell’s 24-yard run and 2-yard touchdown run with 6:38 to play. Ramos’ kick put East Bladen up, 28-21.
The Eagles’ defense did its job by holding Graham to a four and out, but East Bladen’s offense couldn’t take advantage. After moving to the Red Devils’ 30, the Eagles found themselves in a fourth and long situation — and Eian Hines turned a broken play into a 22-yard first-down run that got called back for holding. Facing fourth and 29, East Bladen punted.
Graham was pinned back on its 11 to start its next possession, but quickly chewed up big chunks of yards and soon reached the East Bladen 6. A pass over the middle took care of those 6 yards and when the PAT went through the uprights, the Red Devils had tied the score with 25.7 seconds left in regulation.
The Eagles managed to move from their own 20 to the Graham 42 before time ran out — and the game was decided in overtime.
“We need to get people healthy and get better at what we do,” Priest said after the game. “We know what we’ll be facing next.”
East Bladen, now 10-2, will travel to Pinetops to face No. 2 seed and 11-1 Southwest Edgecombe, who defeated Farmville Central on Friday, 42-3.
For the Eagles, Tatum led the ground game with 154 yards and a touchdown on 30 carries, while Owens had 100 yards and a touchdown on 23 carries. McDowell rushed for 90 yards and two touchdowns on 18 carries.
W. Curt Vincent can be reached by calling 910-862-4163.