In a game that produced 1,141 yards of offense and 118 combined points, Cleveland had enough firepower to out-duel Hope Mills Gray’s Creek, defeating the Bears 69-49 in the first round of the 3AA state football playoffs.
To tip the numbers in their favor, the Rams’ Aaron Farmer and Corey Brown provided the big one-two punch as Farmer threw for 466 yards and four touchdown passes and Brown rushed for 137 yards and three scores.
The win came just one day shy of a year after Cleveland (10-2) ousted Gray’s Creek in the opening round of the playoffs last season and gives the Rams at least one playoff win in each of its first four years as a varsity program.
“We’ve gotten at least one every year,” said Cleveland coach Scott Riley. “There are a lot of programs who don’t get any so to get one each year is a big thing for us.”
The teams traded touchdowns for much of the night but the Rams’ defense came up big in the second quarter as the defensive line, led by Sterling Johnson, began to slow down, albeit temporarily, the vaunted Gray’s Creek rushing attack.
On a fourth-down-and-two on the Cleveland 22-yardline, Johnson stuffed Bears’ fullback Calvin Boyd at the line to force the turnover on downs.
The Rams capitalized on the opportunity to grab a little breathing room, using a 15-play, 78-yard drive to take a 28-14 lead into halftime when Caiden Norman, called upon to fill in for Farmer after Farmer was knocked to the ground on he previous play, found Zach Bunn for a 15-yard score.
The two high-powered offenses proceeded to trade touchdowns the remainder of the game with Gray’s Creek closing to within 55-49 with 10 minutes to play when Boyd burst through the line on a trap play that resulted in a 34-yard touchdown.
“The defense played pretty well in the first half,” said Riley. “They made some adjustments and it took us a little while to adjust back. They’re a well-coached team and we knew that they would have a good second half in them.
“This bracket is so tough; we knew that every game was going to be like this.”
The Rams responded, as they did all night long, with a pair of scores to ice the game.
Farmer found Norman for his fourth touchdown toss of the evening on a 48-yard bomb and then connected with Jacob Scott for a 21-yard strike.
Brown carried the ball 30 times for 137 yards and scores of two, six and 29 yards in an attempt to keep the Bears’ offense, powered by a stable of capable running backs, on the sideline for as long as possible.
The No. 9 seed from the Cape Fear Valley Conference stuck to the ground almost exclusively and for good reason.
Three backs eclipsed the century mark as Gray’s Creek (7-5) tried to avoid suffering an opening round defeat at the hands of the Rams for the second year in a row.
Leyland McDonald rushed for 145 yards and three touchdowns and Calvin Boyd totaled 140 yards and three scores as well. T.J. McMillan added 122 yards on just six carries, including a 75-yard score to open the fourth quarter as the Bears attempted to mount the late comeback.
Scott finished the contest with six catches for 167 yards and two touchdowns, while Patrick Jesequel hauled in four balls for 128 yards and another score for Cleveland.