Harnett Central executed a near flawless game plan to take a 24-21 upset victory over Clayton on Friday night.
Harnett Central senior quarterback Jay McNeil scored the game-winning touchdown on a keeper from the two-yard line with 41 seconds left.
Clayton tried to rally and reached the Central 31 thanks to an Eric Hoy to Blake Joyner completion with 11 seconds left. Hoy lofted a final pass to the corner of the end zone where, amidst a slew of players, Harnett Central’s Deshaun Arnold came down with the game-clinching interception.
“You live by the big play, you die by the big play,” said Clayton coach Randy Pinkowski. “They came out and exploited us a little bit and then they just made the plays when we didn’t.”
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The first big play of the game went the way of the hosts. Harnett Central surprised the Comets on the game’s opening kickoff when Tavarius Murray’s onside kick was collected by the Trojans’ Kahlil Dixon without much resistance.
Four plays later, Dixon ended Harnett Central’s first, albeit, shortened drive when he found a big lane in the middle of the line and waltzed in for six points.
The Trojans held a 14-7 lead at halftime after McNeil ran it in from five yards out later in the first quarter.
Harnett Central used a punishing ground attack and a short passing game to dominate the time of possession as the Trojans held the ball for more than 32 minutes, running 44 more offensive plays than Clayton.
“That’s the nature of their offense,” Pinkowski said. “It’s a good scheme and they executed it well. It was hard to defend.”
In the first half, McNeil targeted wideout Kasual Cantey on quick swing passes and the senior hauled in six passes for 86 yards.
In the second half, the Trojans (2-3, 1-0) used Cantey as a decoy, faking to his side and then reversing fields to throw to Deshaun Arnold on slip screens to the tune of five catches for 54 yards.
McNeil ended the game on 16-for-19 passing for 169 yards and added 115 more hard-fought yards on the ground.
“We’re in the process of turning things around here,” said Harnett Central coach Dave Thomas. “This is a big step for us. Our kids came out, played well, executed well and we held on there at the end.”
Blake Joyner helped Clayton respond after Harnett Central’s score on its opening possession with a 32-yard kickoff return to set the Comets up on the plus-side of the 50-yard-line.
Hoy cashed in four plays later when he found Kevonte Hunter down the sideline for a 46-yard touchdown pass to tie the game.
Hoy (236 passing yards) again evened the score in the third quarter on yet another big play, this time a simple pass to Joyner (187 receiving yards) in the flat that turned into a 61-yard scamper into the end zone.
Clayton took its first and only lead of the contest when Hoy found Joyner down the middle of the field for a 43-yard strike, making the score 21-17.
But in the end, the Comets (3-2, 0-1) could not answer with the final big play.
“Our focus wasn’t good coming off of a bye week,” said Pinkowski. “Our minds were everywhere else but where they were supposed to be and we came down here and paid the price for it.
“We can either learn from it and grow from it or we can go south. It’s up to them.”