DEVILISH INTENT: Blue Devils’ balanced offensive attack against East Lincoln enough to secure top spot in South Fork 2A Conference on Friday

Blue Devils sophomore receiver Chris Culliver (2) collected a pair of TD receptions in the road win over East Lincoln on Friday, March 26. (O-N-E photo by Michelle Thompson)Maiden's senior running back Amarion Craig (3) earned three rushing TDs in the road win over the Mustangs, 46-38. (O-N-E photo by Michelle Thompson)Maiden's senior wide receiver Brennan James (1) scoring his 34-yard TD in the second quarter to put his team ahead 21-3. (O-N-E photo by Michelle Thompson)
Marcus Smith
Sports Editor

Top dog of the South Fork 2A Conference was on the line in Friday night’s prep football action between the visiting Maiden Blue Devils and host-East Lincoln Mustangs.

Despite a near-collapse defensively, the Blue Devils prevailed, 46-38.

For the second consecutive game, Maiden has put on a clinic in the scoring column as it also put up 40 points in a home win over North Lincoln on March 20.

Like that 40-21 victory, the Blue Devils (4-0, 4-0 South Fork 2A) had a very balanced attack in this road contest. Only this time, it didn’t turn the ball over via fumble or interception.

Maiden’s junior quarterback Ethan Rhodes connected on three touchdown passes on the night while going 13-of-23 for 218 yards. His favorite target was sophomore receiver Chris Culliver as he collected two of the three TDs, including a 30-yard grab in the third quarter.

“We executed well offensively,” said Maiden head coach Will Byrne. “The main thing is we didn’t turn it over. We’ve been turning it over for three weeks in-a-row. That was the difference in the game because we had lots of adversity. We got up 21-3, and then we let them back in it. Then, we got up again in the second half...more than 16 points, and we let them back in it again, but then we made enough plays, (and) got enough first downs late to where we could take a knee there at the end.

“They got a great quarterback, he’s a young quarterback. We got after him. We wanted to try and put pressure on him, and we forced a few turnovers which were big. Jacob Sigmon’s interception return for a touchdown was huge...We also had some lapses in coverage, but they’re a good football team, and they got good coaches...They know how to beat certain coverages and things like that. I’m just super proud of the kids once again...for handling the adversity that they did. They keep fighting, and we love this group as coaches. These kids really care about each other, and they play for each other. Nobody cares who scores. Nobody cares who gets the glory; it’s just all about, ‘let’s just win.’”

As for the Mustangs (4-1, 3-1 South Fork 2A), it earned the first points of the contest via a 29-yard field goal attempt by junior kicker Jaxon Sellers with 5:15 left in the first quarter. This drive was kick-started after the Blue Devils had the opening possession, having won the coin toss and choosing to receive first.

In a change of pace for the Blue Devils so far this season, with its first drive beginning on its own 39-yard line, it chose to do a couple of designed quarterback runs.

This idea actually worked pretty well at first as Rhodes garnered 17 rushing yards on the first three plays called. However, a wrench was put into the drive as a false start was called on 3rd and 4. This penalty, in addition to a 6-yard sack by Mustangs’ sophomore defensive lineman Joshua Gilbert, forced Maiden into a punting situation with just under 9 minutes left in the frame.

Following the punt, the Mustangs began the aforementioned field goal scoring drive on its own 20-yard line with 8:51 left in the opening quarter.

Although it gave up two big passing plays during this series, the Blue Devils stood tough defensively to only give up three points.

After a no-gainer on 1st and 10, the Mustangs went through the air on a 32-yard exchange between sophomore quarterback Tyler Mizzell and senior tight end Joe Dos Santos to get down to Maiden’s 48-yard line.

Then, senior tailback Paulie Menegay charged his way for an 8-yard gain to set up 2nd and 2 from the Blue Devils’ 40-yard line. Menegay followed with a 5-yard run, and then a 20-yard reception to get inside the red zone.

Just as it looked like Maiden would give up a TD, it buckled down and earned three straight stops.

On 1st and 10, sophomore receiver Markell Clark lost a yard on his carry with Blue Devils’ senior defensive tackle Daniel Harris making the play. With the next snap, Mizzell missed his senior receiver Austin Smith, falling incomplete. On 3rd and 11 with 6:11 left in the first quarter, the hot-start by Menegay was halted as he only obtained a minimal 3-yard gain on the ground as Maiden senior Brennan James stopped him in his tracks.

After the field goal conversion by the Mustangs, the Blue Devils scored for the first time on its next possession. Its 10-play drive ended with a 2-yard TD run by senior tailback Amarion Craig. The scoring effort began on its own 35-yard line with 5:08 left in the opening frame.

On 1st and 10, Craig earned a slight 2-yard gain. On 2nd and 8, Rhodes connected to sophomore receiver/defensive back Jacob Sigmon for a 12-yard strike to set up 1st and 10 from its own 49-yard line.

A delay of game penalty would cost Maiden five yards on the ensuing play, and its next two snaps would be busts. Nevertheless, on 3rd and 14 from its own 45-yard line, Rhodes connected on a dagger to the speedy target Culliver for 35 yards.

Culliver followed up that reception with another for 11 more yards (110 yards on six grabs) to get inside the Mustangs’ 10-yard line. The next three plays were designed runs which included Craig’s TD. The point-after attempt by kicker Carson Foard was successful, and the Blue Devils took the lead, 7-3, with 1:58 left in the first quarter.

East Lincoln ended the opening frame with the ball on a drive that started from its own 40-yard line. It only had three snaps to begin the second quarter before the biggest play of the night came via Maiden’s Jacob Sigmon as he corralled the 81-yard pick-6. The PAT by Foard was good, and the Blue Devils carried a 14-3 lead with 11:18 remaining in the quarter.

Attempting to shake off his interception throw, Mizzell came by onto the field with ground-game attacks on his mind. Unfortunately for the Mustangs, he was unsuccessful in his attempts. On 1st and 10 from its own 38-yard line with 11:12 left in the first half, Mizzell attempted a scramble out of the pocket only to get tackled for an 8-yard sack by Maiden junior linebacker Dru McClough.

His next play – a pass attempt – was charged as intentional grounding which set up a 3rd and 33 from its own 15-yard line. On the next snap, Mizzell was hounded by junior linebacker Aaron Lefevers for a 10-yard sack to force a punt with 9:45 left in the half.

The Blue Devils followed up with a quick 3-play scoring drive beginning on East Lincoln’s 35-yard line. The first two plays didn’t result in any great outcome, but on 3rd and 9, Rhodes found receiver Brennan James for a 34-yard bomb (his only reception of the game). The PAT was good, and Maiden held a 21-3 lead with 8:50 left in the second quarter.

This is when things got tricky for the Blue Devil defense. Down the stretch in the final five minutes of the first half, the Mustangs charged its way into the end zone for two TDs.

East Lincoln’s next scoring drive began on the Maiden 37-yard line with 4:49 left in the quarter following a quick 3-and-out by the Blue Devils.

A 5-yard run by Menegay followed by a 2-yard run by Lucas McConnell (with a 15-yard facemask penalty charged to Maiden on this play) set the Mustangs up inside the Blue Devils’ 20-yard line.

Following a 13-yard run by Menegay on 1st and 10 from the 18-yard line, he pushed his way into the end zone for a 5-yarder. The PAT by Sellers went through the upright, and East Lincoln trailed, 21-10, with 4:13 remaining in the half. Menegay finished with 79 yards on 11 carries.

Maiden’s next offensive possession was a bust as it collected a turnover on downs after five plays. The Mustangs then began its next scoring drive from the Blue Devils’ 31-yard line.

A quick strike to Clark from Mizzell for 13 yards led to a 1st and 10 from the 18-yard line with 2:35 left to go. Menegay then bulldozed his way into the end zone for an 18-yard TD run. With the successful PAT, East Lincoln only trailed, 21-17, with 2:22 left in the opening half.

Fortunately for Maiden, momentum went back into its favor as it ended the half with the final scoring drive.

Beginning on the East Lincoln 49-yard line with 2:16 left to go, it only took seven plays to score once again.

The first two snaps were handed off to Craig for seven and 16 yards, respectively. Craig finished with 77 yards on 17 carries. Rhodes kept it on the ground for a 1-yard gain followed by a 7-yard connection to junior receiver Chayson Bass (his only reception).

The next two plays were a no-go for Maiden as Craig had no gain on 3rd and 2 while a false start penalty on the Blue Devils pushed it back to the 23-yard line. Nevertheless, instead of attempting a field goal, Maiden put all its cards out on the table and went for it on 4th and 7.

After the snap, Rhodes scanned the field and saw Culliver in the left corner of the end zone. He slung the prayer and Culliver snatched it from the air in miraculous-fashion as he was able to hold onto it inbounds for the score. The 2-point conversion attempt was no good, but the Blue Devils still held a 10-point advantage, 27-17, with about 17 seconds left.

One more play was ran by East Lincoln following the kick return before the break. As far as the second half, the Mustangs began the third quarter with the opening possession. However, Maiden’s defense stood tall for a quick 3-and-out with only about 1:30 taken off of the clock.

Following the quick stop by the defense, the Blue Devil offense came back onto the field and scored once more. The drive began on its own 40-yard line with 10:29 left in the third. Rhodes found sophomore receiver Ben Gibbs for the 20-yard grab to get out into enemy territory. Gibbs collected 55 yards on four receptions in the game, along with 14 yards on three carries (all in fourth quarter).

Although the next two plays were consecutive incompletions by Rhodes, an East Lincoln holding penalty on 3rd and 10 aided Maiden in pushing it to the 30-yard line. With great blocking up front, Craig managed to maneuver his way into the end zone for his second of three rushing TDs of the game. Foard’s PAT was no good, and Maiden held a 33-17 lead with 9:27 left in the quarter.

Defensively, the Blue Devils had some great spurts including a fumble recovery by Harris with 8:17 left in the third, and a forced fumble by Lefevers recovered by Maiden to end the quarter. However, it would have a wishy-washy outcome on some occasions in the second half including a lapse that led to a 16-yard TD connection from Mizzell to McConnell with 34 seconds left in the frame. McConnell finished with 70 yards on three receptions.

Mizzell finished with 216 yards on a 15-of-24 clip and the aforementioned passing TD. In the four quarter, he also scored on the ground with the first on a 1-yard run to trail, 46-31, with 6:06 left in the game. While, the second TD came on a 25-yard burst on 3rd and goal. The PAT by Sellers was good, and the Mustangs trailed, 46-38, with 1:24 left in the game.

In the final minute of the contest, Maiden ran three plays including two quarterback kneels by Rhodes to end the match-up. Nevertheless, the Blue Devils did score twice more before the game was over including a 30-yard connection from Rhodes to Culliver with 3:06 left in the third quarter, as well as a 10-yard rushing TD by Craig with 7:30 left in the fourth quarter.

Maiden travels to rival Newton-Conover (2-2, 2-2 South Fork 2A) on Friday, April 2, while East Lincoln heads to West Lincoln (3-2, 3-2 South Fork 2A). Both contests are set for a 7 p.m. kick-off.