FUQUAY-VARINA — Quarterback Tyler Williams got an earful from Fuquay-Varina head coach Ryan Habich after he came to the sideline, having tossed a potentially game-losing 76-yard interception return for touchdown to Clayton’s Anthony Gaskins.
Habich was hard on his first-year starter, but could tell the junior was going to respond.
No sooner had Habich finished chiding Williams than the Bengals, ranked 14th in the N&O’s top 20, fumbled on the ensuing kickoff, giving No. 15 Clayton the ball at the 11-yard line. Then Habich had to figure out how the rest of his players would respond.
The Bengals stopped Clayton on fourth down, followed it up with a 97-yard touchdown drive and a game-winning two-point conversion with 1:57 left to snatch victory from the Comets by a 14-13 score.
“One thing you can’t measure is how our team fought back,” Habich said, singling out Williams. “We look for a quarterback who has some moxie, one that’s not going to get too discouraged when he makes mistakes because everyone is going to make mistakes. I looked at him, he knew he did wrong – two bad passes that he should’ve thrown away or called the wrong route – but I like the way he responded. Being a quarterback is about leading the team down and scoring and he did a good job of that.”
On the final drive, Williams had a rush of 28 yards that moved the Bengals out of the shadow of their own goal posts, then a completion of a 14-yard pass to get across midfield and a 12-yard completion to Garrett Suggs on a fourth down from the Clayton 39.
On the two-point conversion, Williams (6-of-16, 110 yards passing, 67 yards rushing) rolled out to his right, planted his feet and threw across his body to the left, where senior Jon MacBride made a diving catch.
“We have been working on that play all week, because we knew we would need it at some point in time,” said Williams. “I knew my tight end was going to catch it, I just had to give him a chance.”
The rivalry called the “Battle of (N.C.) Highway 42” is no stranger to such late-game heroics.
It was the fifth time in the last six meetings where the game was decided by 10 points or less and the fourth time by 7 or less.
Clayton coach Gary Fowler is no stranger to close games in the Battle of N.C. Highway 42, but it was also the second time in as many weeks his team was narrowly defeated by one of the Triangle’s top teams. The Comets (0-2) were coming off a 20-15 loss to Cardinal Gibbons that also went down to the wire.
“The big thing now is how my kids react,” Fowler said. “After awhile your heart keeps breaking, and I hope there’s a lot of glue back in Clayton (because) I’ve got to find a way to mend these hearts. When you go through a two-week stretch like we have, it’s tough. The mental part is the thing right now that we’ve got to deal with.”
Clayton led 7-0 at halftime, the only score a 10-yard run by Ced Harris in the first quarter. The Comets held Fuquay-Varina (1-1), which had rushed for 382 yards the week before in a 42-35 loss to West Johnston, to minus-3 rushing yards in the first half.
MacBride caught a 10-yard touchdown pass from Williams in the third quarter, but the extra point was blocked by Kevin Peppers. Clayton took a 13-6 lead on Gaskins’ interception return – his second of the night – as the extra point missed left.
The win was all too important for the Bengals, who host rival and usual Tri-9 Conference challenger Middle Creek next week. The Bengals haven’t lost at home since 2009, a span of 14 games.
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