CLAYTON — The losses weren’t ideal, but weren’t what had Clayton football coach Gary Fowler worried entering Thursday’s battle with county rival South Johnston.
Clayton was on the verge of losing the mental battle.
The Comets, losers in the final minutes of their first two games against Cardinal Gibbons and Fuquay-Varina, broke through in a big way – mentally and on the scoreboard, topping the Trojans, 41-14.
“I found out this bunch doesn’t like to lose tonight,” Fowler said. “And that’s a great thing.”
Senior back Tam Barbour rushed for a pair of touchdowns and 159 yards and the Comets’ defense forced six turnovers in the kind of “brother-in-law” football the Comets seem to always play when they’re winning games.
“We made some big plays and took pressure off of each other,” Fowler said. “The offensive line played its best game of the season, Tam ran like you want your lead back to run. … And Anthony Gaskins, wow, he’s a player.”
Gaskins, a senior defensive back, had three of those Comet turnovers. He picked off three South passes, the first a memorable leaping one-handed grab while tiptoeing to get his feet down inbound. The pick set up Clayton’s first TD drive, a 2-yard Barbour run.
Clayton went 98 yards on its second TD drive of the first half, in just six plays (all on the ground) after an Austin Raynor punt pinned the Comets against their own goal line. Barbour broke off a 21-yard run on the second play of the drive and went 66 yards three plays later for a 14-0 lead.
The Trojans (2-1) drove inside of the Clayton 20 just before the first half, but came up scoreless just before the half when Gaskins and teammate Ced Rouse combined to tip away a pass that teammate Raleigh Gilbert picked off.
Gilbert recovered a South fumble as well on the night.
“We just helped each other,” Gaskins said of the Comets’ defense ability to create turnovers. “The D-line got pressure, our linebackers were strong and the defensive backs all worked together.”
The Comets added two more touchdowns to their lead at the start of the second half before the offense even took the field. Cedric Harris returned the opening kick off of the half 90 yards for a touchdown, then Gaskins jumped a short pass route in the middle of the field, tipped it and pulled it in. He ran 26 yards for a touchdown and a 27-0 Clayton lead just 50 seconds into the second half.
“Clayton plays tough defense against us, always,” said South coach Shane Dular. “We’re still growing up, replacing 10 of 11 starters on offense isn’t easy. Defensively, I thought we played pretty well to be down just 14-0 at the half. Then we give up two touchdowns before they ever get on the field in the second half.”
After Anthony Myers gave Clayton a 34-0 lead on a 6-yard run, Garrett Smith pulled in a 24-yard TD pass from Raynor just before the third-quarter horn.
Harris broke off a 66-yard run for Clayton, who rushed for 322 yards as a team, in the fourth, while Raynor hooked up for a 34-yard TD with Victor Burgess to round out the scoring.