Explosive plays in the passing game and a second-half shutout helped Charlotte Catholic claim a come-from-behind 17-14 victory over Jacksonville on Saturday at Kenan Stadium in the N.C. High School Athletic Association 3A state championship game.
With the win, the Cougars (16-0) now have six state titles and three in the last four seasons.
Getting past Jacksonville (11-2), which defeated No. 1 seed Havelock to reach Saturday’s title game, was anything but easy for the Cougars.
Charlotte Catholic entered Saturday’s contest having given up just 6.4 points per game but trailed 14-10 at halftime against an explosive Jacksonville team, and didn’t regain the lead until senior quarterback Chris Walton hit senior running back/wide receiver Michael Neel for the game-winning touchdown from 22 yards out with 4:55 remaining in the fourth quarter.
Even though they played from behind for much of the second half, the Cougars believed they had a championship-winning performance in them.
They had been here before.
“In the locker room we were all cool and collected,” said Charlotte Catholic senior safety/running back Brian Jacobs, who was named the game’s most valuable player for a performance that included a crucial 32-yard catch on his team’s game-winning drive and an interception on defense.
“No one was freaking out. (Charlotte Catholic coach Mike Brodowicz) just came in and said, ‘We’re good. We didn’t play our best half of football but we’re going to come out better and we’re just going to give it our all.’”
Brodowicz’s faith in his players was rewarded. The Cougars’ offense connected on big plays when they need them the most, and their defense made adjustments to shut down Jacksonville and its athletic quarterback, Justyn Benton, after halftime.
COUGARS MIX IT UP
Charlotte Catholic has traditionally made its hay offensively by running the ball. On Saturday, the Cougars aired it out when they needed to and they have a state championship to show for it.
Between junior Lamagea McDowell and Neel, Charlotte Catholic has a pair of 1,000-plus yard rushers. But the Cougars’ running game was met with resistance by Jacksonville from the get-go.
Apart from its first drive of the second half, which included seven straight runs by McDowell before he fumbled at the 1-yard line, Charlotte Catholic struggled to establish any sort of rhythm running the ball. The Cardinals stacked the box and were winning up front.
“I told (offensive coordinator Kevin Christmas), ‘Let’s go spread,’” Brodowicz said. “‘Let’s throw the ball a little bit.’If they’re going to stack it, if they’re going to try to play us man-on-man …”
At that point, the onus was on Walton, the Cougars’ senior signal-caller, to deliver. And deliver he did. At first glance, his numbers don’t jump off the page: six completions, 144 yards, and 54.5 completion percentage.
But nearly every time Walton did complete a pass, it was for a huge gain either in a critical situation or on third down. Of Walton’s six completions, five went for at least 13 yards and he connected with his receivers for gains of 22, 28, 32 and 42 yards, respectively.
The biggest play of the day came late in the fourth quarter with the Cougars still trailing Jacksonville by four. Facing a 3rd-and-13 at his own 44 yard-line, Walton took his time, surveyed the field and hit Jacobs for a 32-yard gain on a post route to push the Cougars deep into Jacksonville territory.
Two plays later, a play-action pass on “wingback cross” from Walton to Neel gave the Cougars the lead, which they would never let up.
“All week, we know we can run the ball,” Walton said. “And we ran the ball, ran the ball, ran the ball. Finally, when you run the ball so much, their linebackers suck up, their corners and DBs come up, and the o-line gave me plenty of time.”
Brodowicz, a former quarterback himself, has an appreciation for Walton’s ability to be precise when called upon, even if his team usually isn’t super dependent on the passing game.
“When he has throws to make, he’s just gotta make those throws, like that touchdown throw,” Brodowicz said. “That’s a lot of pressure. I played quarterback before. When you get that call, in a game like that, even when it’s wide open … it’s not as easy as people think.”
JACKSONVILLE SAID IT ‘RAN OUT OF TIME’
Jacksonville’s appearance in Saturday’s title game was notable for several reasons.
For starters, the Cardinals hadn’t played for a state championship since 1994. And the odds of them getting a chance to win their first state title since 1982 seemed to take a hit when Hurricane Florence made landfall in September. Because of the storm and the damage it caused, the Cardinals went five weeks without playing a game (Aug. 31 to Oct. 5).
Yet, Jacksonville hit its stride as the postseason began and scored an improbable 41-34 win on the road against Havelock in the semifinals after trailing 21-7 at the end of the first quarter.
But there were no signs that Jacksonville was just happy to be at Kenan Stadium considering the obstacles it had overcome. Instead, the Cardinals looked to be the better of the two teams during the first half.
Offensively, Jacksonville stretched the field horizontally with its spread offense, which featured Benton lined up in the shotgun, often with senior running backs Kijeir Finister and Graham Brinker. The Cardinals ran many sweeps or pitches to the outside, and Benton took off for a 48-yard gain on Jacksonville’s first offensive play of the game.
Come halftime, Benton had 89 rushing yards and a passing touchdown. His strong play along with Jacksonville’s defense shutting down Charlotte Catholic’s running game had the Cardinals in good shape at the break.
But after halftime, the Cougars clamped down on Benton and limited him to just 24 rushing yards during the final two quarters.
“Hard-fought game like you said,” Jacksonville head coach Beau Williams said. “Just didn’t work out for us. Great team in Charlotte Catholic. Just kind of ran out of time we felt like.”
Finister, who ran for 34 yards, said that when looking back on this season, he’ll be most fond of how his team believed in itself more and more once the postseason began.
“When we hit playoffs, we just kept rolling,” Finister said. “Our defense kept making stops, and the offense was just executing.”