Six inches and two points short.
That’s how close South Johnston came to making up a 31-7 halftime deficit before falling to West Craven, 31-29 in the opening round of the NCHSAA 3A football playoffs.
That six inches — and two points shortage, came when Trojans quarterback
Deparis Patterson was stopped just shy of the goal line as he attempted to score a two-point conversion that would have wrapped up a 12-minute rally and potentially force overtime.
Patterson’s PAT attempt came on the heels of a three-yard run by Eric Bowles, who led the Trojans ground game with 154 yards in 30 carries and all four South Johnston touchdowns.
Three of Bowles’ touchdowns came in that 12-minute span, from the final minute of the third quarter to the final minute of the game.
“When we got together in the locker room,” said Trojans coach Hunter Jenks about the mood at halftime, “We talked about the same things we had talked about all year long - staying together, play as a team, fight as a team and come back as a team.
“This speaks to the character of this football team. At any given time during the season, most teams would have folded up the tents and given up being down 31-7 and gone home.”
And stick together, fight together, play together and comeback together the Trojans did.
But Instead of preparing for a second round meeting with three-time defending state champion Havelock, the Trojans were sent packing for the season with a 5-7 record.
“What did it come down to, a half a foot?” Jenks queried after talking to his team for the last time this season in post-game remarks.
“We just came up two minutes short. If we had just a little more time, I am sure this would have been a different ball game.”
The first half resembled a lot of the games the Trojans have played this season — falling behind big, then having to scratch and claw their way back, either falling just short or making the miracle comeback.
This time, the Trojans found their hands full trying to contain Eagles quarterback Darius Johnson, who rushed for 71 yards on 12 carries and completed 9-of-14 passes for 174 yards.
Johnson was complemented by running back Kenny McDaniel, who rushed for 85 yards on seven carries and Danny Harvey, who added 60 on five attempts.
West Craven, the 11th seed from the Coastal Conference, who improved to 5-7, utilized the big play to build their 31-7 halftime bulge.
The Eagles needed only two plays and 27 seconds to grab a 7-0 lead on a 60-yard dash up the right sideline by McDaniel, followed by Tommie Garcia’s PAT.
After the Trojans tied matters two minute later on the first of Bowles’ touchdowns, West Craven went to the air, with Johnson connecting on the first of two first quarter touchdown passes, a 39-yarder to Harvey.
Then after stopping South Johnston on downs at the West Craven 18, the Eagles again needed only two plays, culminating the drive on an 80-yard bomb to a wide-open Peejay Thompson for 80 yards and a 21-7 first quarter lead.
Matters improved somewhat for the Trojans in the second quarter, holding the Eagles to a 28-yard field goal y Garcia, pushing the margin to 24-7.
Big play struck again for the Eagles with 31 seconds left, when West Craven blocked a Trojans punt with Michael Garris scooping up the pigskin and taking it 33 yards for another touchdown and the 317 halftime bulge.
“They are a real athletic team (West Craven),” Jenks said. “We ran it right straight at them in the second half and our counter was working for us - we just came up short.”
South cut the gap to 31-15 on a 10-play, 59-yard drive behind the legs of Bowles, Patterson and Kavante Johnson.
Bowles carried the ball five times for 33 yards, including the final two of the drive.
Johnson added 15 on two rushes, while Patterson contributed a nine-yard scamper for a first down and added the two-point conversion.
Penalties aided the Trojans on its ensuing possession, after stopping the Eagles on downs at the South Johnston 30 and forcing a punt to the South Johnston 15.
West Craven was penalized for a late hit that got the Trojans out of the shadows of the goal posts, and again Bowles, Patterson and Johnson alternated carries with Bowles dashing for runs of 11 and four yards to finish the march.
Patterson found Bowles in the end zone for the two-points conversion with 6:31 to play, and hope resonated among the players and Trojans fans, with the margin trimmed to 31-23.
South forced the Eagles to give up the ball again on a three-and-out on West Craven’s next possession, forcing a punt and taking over at the Trojans’ 31.
The triumvirate again alternated carries, moving the ball to the Eagles’ 40, alog with Patterson finding Tyreekus Reddick for 12 yards on the right sideline.
Facing a second-and nine from the Eagles 39, Patterson connected with Christopher Beasley for four yard - but the catch was aided when the Eagles were called for unsportsmanlike conduct, moving the ball to the20
South finished the drive on a five yard rumble by Bowles, a 12-yard dash by Patterson and a three-yard burst up the middle by Bowles.
But the Eagles, who had not been able to stop the Trojans throughout the fourth quarter, managed to do so at the worst time for South Johnston, then recovered the ensuing onsides kick and ran out the clock.
“It was what it was at the moment,” Jenks said of coming up short. “The officials did a tremendous job out there all night. It was just one of those things the way it turned out.”