By Bill Woodward
CLAYTON – In a game of dramatic shifts and big plays, the biggest play of the night didn’t count.
With Clayton trailing Cardinal Gibbons 20-15 with 41.8 seconds remaining and facing a fourth-and-16 from its own 39-yard line, Comets quarterback Sam May evaded several onrushing Crusaders and ran toward the line of scrimmage. The junior left-hander saw Cedric Harris streaking down the right sideline behind the Gibbons defense and hit him in stride.
Harris ran into the end zone untouched, setting off a wild celebration on the Comets sideline. Then, one-by-one, the Clayton coaches and players saw the flag at the line of scrimmage and their elation turned to dismay.
May was ruled to have released the ball after he had crossed the line of scrimmage, wiping out the go-ahead score. The penalty also included a loss of down, and the Crusaders took over and took a knee to run out the final 31.2 seconds and seal the victory in the season-opening endowment game.
“I didn’t see it,” veteran Clayton coach Gary Fowler said, shaking his head. “The coaches said he was right there at [the line of scrimmage]. A lot of times, that’s not called, but that’s just the way it went tonight.
“The thing that I am proud of is my kids and that tried to come back and find a way. And we thought we had a way, but it just didn’t happen.”
The game matched two of the teams ranked in The News & Observer’s preseason top 20. Cardinal Gibbons, 11-2 last season, is ranked No. 10. Clayton is 15th.
For Gibbons coach Steven Wright, the emotional roller-coaster left him with a drained sense of relief. The Crusaders could have salted the win away on a fourth-and-4 play from the Clayton 14 with 1:44 left, but standout runner Ben Grazen (138 yards rushing) was stopped at the line of scrimmage to set up the last-minute drama.
“I wasn’t watching the line of scrimmage because I was keeping my eye on our defensive backs,” he said. “I told them, ‘Nothing gets behind you,’ and then there goes that ball flying over their head. I thought that was it, they scored. Game over.
“When I saw the flag on the field, you can just imagine the relief.”
The Cardinals used a one-two punch of senior speedster Grazen and junior quarterback Shawn Stankavage to move the ball. Stankavage had a 9-yard touchdown pass to Stephen Boyle and scoring runs of 21 and 57 yards to finish with 94 yards rushing and 136 yards passing (10-for-15 with two interceptions).