CARTERVILLE – When you hear someone say “he wouldn’t be denied,” they might have had Carterville’s Bryce Smith in mind during the second half Friday night.
Smith rushed for 183 of his 214 yards after halftime as the Lions clinched an IHSA playoff spot and no worse than a tie for the SIRR Mississippi title with a 28-7 defeat of Nashville at Lions Field.
“We started wearing on them a little bit,” said Carterville coach Brett Diel. “That big back who’s about 210 pounds, he had unbelievable effort and we had great blocking on the perimeter.”
Diel was also quick to point out that the Lions’ offensive line, which is comprised entirely of players who don’t play defense, had something to do with Smith’s second half heroics. At the same time, it wouldn’t be hyperbole to point out that Smith likely broke a dozen arm tackles or more during his 18 second half rushes.
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About the only thing Smith didn’t do was score a touchdown, but it’s pretty certain Carterville (6-0, 3-0) wouldn’t have crossed the goal line twice after halftime without his dogged work. More than half of his yardage came after initial contact, including 35 and 38-yard runs that marked a 136-yard third quarter.
The first run set up a 2-yard touchdown run by Andrew Hellriegel three minutes into the third quarter for a 21-7 advantage. That came three plays after the first of four second half turnovers by the Hornets (4-2, 1-1) set up a 40-yard field.
Smith uncorked his second long run later in the period, leading to Hellriegel’s 12-yard scoring strike to Blake Burkey 52 seconds into the fourth quarter that settled the issue. Hellriegel finished 8 of 17 for 80 yards and added 44 yards on the ground.
Nashville quarterback J.T. Malawy hit 15 of 25 passes for 191 yards with a touchdown and an interception, but the Hornets managed just 55 yards on 31 rushes.
In fact, Nashville managed just 58 total yards in the second half as the Lions’ active front seven repeatedly shed blockers to stuff the run while creating decent pressure on the cool Malawy.
“We thought that we could stop the run,” Diel said. “They are tough to defend, but I thought our defensive staff and our players did a phenomenal job of shutting down the run. Getting those turnovers in the second half was huge.”
Nashville controlled most of the first quarter behind its no-huddle, rapid-fire attack that squeezed off some plays 13 seconds after the previous snap. It ran 24 of 27 plays in one first half stretch, finally initiating scoring at the 8:36 mark of the second quarter.
Malawy dropped back to throw off play-action from the Carterville 37 and found Carson Cook yards behind any defender. Cook caught the ball around the 15 and waltzed into the end zone for a 7-0 lead.
The Lions’ response was quick and decisive. Hellriegel appeared to gain a first down on 3rd-and-2, but was spotted a yard shy on a decision that created some groaning among the large home crowd.
That was replaced moments later by the sound of the Carterville cannon firing after Hellriegel blazed 51 untouched yards up the middle for a 7-7 tie with 6:21 remaining.
Another big play by Hellriegel gave the Lions their first lead in the final minute. After suffering a 9-yard sack to the Hornets’ 30, Hellriegel converted 3rd-and-19 with a strike on a post pattern to Nolan Hartford, who caught the ball in stride at the 5 for a 14-7 advantage with 41.1 seconds left.
Outgained 188-145 and outpossessed by nearly 4 ½ minutes by an opponent which squeezed off 13 more snaps in the half, Carterville still led at halftime because it made two big plays.
And then it pulled away after halftime to validate its No. 8 ranking in this week’s Class 4A poll, as well as set itself up for a potential 9-0 regular season that could give it a nice, high seed for the playoffs.
“We’re six weeks in with six wins,” Diel said. “We’ve got three more games left to work some things out and get ready for a postseason run. Clinching the playoffs before October? That’s awesome.”
Kind of like Smith’s running in the second half.