DUBLIN — Fumbles, penalties and having to turn to their third quarterback of the season all played a part in a 26-12 Union win over West Bladen in the two teams’ Four County Conference opener on Saturday.
The loss drops the Knights to 2-3 overall and 0-1 in the conference, while the Spartans move to 5-0 and 1-0.
After each team went three-and out to open the game, Union took possession at its own 11 and began an eight-play match to midfield that was stopped when a Spartans fumble was recovered by Traquan Smith at the Union 49.
West Bladen got a 420-yard run by A.J. Willis on the first play, but four subsequent runs picked up just 6 yards and the Knights were stopped at the Spartans 1.
Union took over and moved the ball out to its own 17 before penalties moved them back to the 4 and forced the visitors to punt — which traveled just 24 yards and gave West Bladen control at the Spartans’ 18 after a 10-yard return. B.J. Drake carried the ball for 13 yards, but a 15-yard penalty brought the ball back to the Union 20. On the next play, quarterback Scott Bowen dropped back and lofted a perfect pass to a wide open Jonathan Ashworth for a 20-yard touchdown.
The two-point try went awry, but the Knights led 6-0 just 3:51 into the second quarter.
The Spartans answered quickly. Starting from its own 40, Union needed just five plays to cover the 60 yards, scoring on a 1-yard run with 5:31 left in the half. The two-point run was good and the visitors took an 8-6 lead they would not give up.
West Bladen’s next possession lasted just two plays before a fumble gave the ball to the Spartans on the Knights’ 18. Three plays later, Union scored on a 13-yard touchdown pass with 2:54 left in the second quarter. The two-point try failed, but the Spartans led 14-6.
Michael Hepburn returned the Union kickoff 28 yards to the West Bladen 42 and Drake ran for 20 yards on the first play to the Spartans’38 and Willis added 9 yards before a fumble on the third play was recovered by Union at its own 36. The Spartans drive went nowhere and ran out the half.
“We’ve got to hang on to the ball and keep pounding,” West Bladen coach Todd Pait said. “And we’ve got to finish drives.”
Union’s squib kick to start the second half was fielded by Jonathan Robinson and returned 9 yards to the Spartans’ 36. An unsportsman-like penalty against Union moved the ball to the 21, where West Bladen began a promising drive — only to see it stall with two runs for losses and a sack. A fourth-down pass was no good and Union took over at its own 23.
The two teams traded punts before Union took possession at the West Bladen 46 and scored on just two plays with 3:12 left in the third quarter. The two-point try failed, but the Spartans led 20-6.
Hepburn gathered in the Union kickoff at his own 10 after it had been knocked way by a teammate, and the speedy Knights raced 83 yards to the Spartans’ 7 before being brought down. A Union penalty took the ball inside the 4 and, two plays later, Bowen ran up the middle for a 3-yard touchdown. The two-point effort was no good, but West Bladen had pulled to within 20-12 with 2:17 left in the third quarter.
Union started its next drive at its own 37 and moved to the Knights’ 33 before Hunter Pait fell on a Union fumble at the West Bladen 36 early in the fourth frame. But the Knights couldn’t take advantage and punted, as did the Spartans on their next possession.
After the Knights went four-and-out, giving Union the ball at the West Bladen 29, the Spartans needed just four plays to find the end zone with 4:20 left to play. The two-point try was botched, but the Spartans held a 26-12 edge.
West Bladen began its final possession at its own 18, but despite two Union penalties that gave the Knights 20 yards, nothing clicked for the home team and an interception ended things moments later.
“Missed opportunities,” Pait said. “It’s frustrating to work on things all week and then don’t execute.
“But the kids are working hard,” he added, “and I still believe we’re a good football team.”
Drake led the West Bladen ground game with 52 yards on 12 carries, while Willis was right behind with 50 yards on five carries. Through the air, Bowen was 1-of-4 for 20 yards with a touchdown and interception.
West Bladen will host Wallace-Rose Hill in a conference game on Friday at 7 p.m.
W.Curt Vincent can be reached by calling 910-862-4163.