NO PLACE LIKE HOME: Blue Devils football earns 'Homecoming' win over North Lincoln on Saturday

Maiden head football coach Will Byrne with his team in the win over North Lincoln on Saturday, March 20. (O-N-E photo by Michelle Thompson)Blue Devils senior receiver Brennan James (1) with the wide open catch in Saturday's win over North Lincoln at Maiden Middle School. (O-N-E photo by Michelle Thompson)Maiden sophomore receiver Chris Culliver (2) grabbed an 80-yard TD in Saturday's win over the Knights. (O-N-E photo by Michelle Thompson)Blue Devils junior quarterback Ethan Rhodes (12) connected on 4 TD passes in Saturday's 'Homecoming' win over North Lincoln. (O-N-E photo by Michelle Thompson)
Marcus Smith
Sports Editor

Who says you can't go back home?

Thanks to bad field conditions at Maiden High School due to heavy rain during the tail-end of the week, the Maiden Blue Devils varsity football program returned to its old stomping grounds.

In a pivotal Week 4 match-up that was supposed to happen on Friday night, the Blue Devils held its 'Homecoming' game against North Lincoln on Saturday afternoon in a very familiar environment via Maiden Middle School.

It wasn't too long ago that the field at Maiden Middle was the host site for the Blue Devils. In honor of this occasion in the old Thomas E. Brown Stadium, the Blue Devils dominated offensively en route to a 40-21 victory over the Knights (2-2, 1-2 South Fork 2A).

“Just super proud of the kids,” said Maiden head coach Will Byrne. “They play hard. We made mistakes. We turned it over five times offensively, but when we executed, we made great plays. We ran the football well late. We threw the football well pretty much all night. We missed a few open ones. That's just with time. It's starting to come together.

“This whole COVID season. I said it at the Bandys game. Not being able to get outside a lot. We're getting outside a little bit more [now]. The passing game, getting that sured up more. We're throwing it more than a normal Maiden football team. We got some receivers that can go get it. Ethan's doing a good job. Even though he threw a couple interceptions, he still comes back, and he makes throws when he needs to make them. He's a great kid, and he's a great quarterback, and I'm just super proud of them kids for playing so hard, and winning convincingly.”

With the win, Maiden (3-0, 3-0) enters a tie for first-place in the South Fork 2A Conference with East Lincoln (4-0, 3-0) – who defeated Bandys (1-3, 1-3) on Friday, 24-20. These two titans will butt heads on Friday, March 26, at East Lincoln set for a 7 p.m. kick-off.

As for its contest against North Lincoln, the Blue Devils won the opening coin toss and decided to receive.

However, things didn't go as planned during its first drive as the Knights' defense forced a turnover on downs after an 8-play series. The biggest play of the drive came via a 40-yard bomb from junior quarterback Ethan Rhodes to senior wide-out Brennan James (who finished with 139 yards on eight receptions).

With the ball following the turnover, North Lincoln couldn't get anything going as it had a quick stint with the possession on a 5-play drive.

After corralling the punt and getting out to its own 31-yard line for its next drive with 7:49 left to go in the first quarter, Rhodes' early woes continued as he threw his first of three interceptions on the first play. North Lincoln's Jack Carter collected the interception and brought his team out to the Maiden 21-yard line.

With great field position, it only took the Knights three plays to score the first touchdown of the game via a 12-yard run by junior tailback Cooper Wray (who finished with 29 yards on four carries). The point-after attempt by junior kicker Liam Sutton was good, and North Lincoln carried a 7-0 lead with 6:23 remaining the opening frame.

The Blue Devils responded with a scoring drive (13 plays) of its own in the quarter. Maiden began its series on its own 20-yard line. A couple of short runs by senior running back Amarion Craig (who finished with 117 yards on 26 carries) followed by a solid 19-yard run by Rhodes gave the home team field position at its own 44-yard line.

Following a 9-yard reception by sophomore receiver Chris Culliver on first down, the Blue Devils stumbled a bit on its next two plays. Nevertheless, on 4th and 6, Rhodes dropped it off to Craig on the screen pass, and he ran for 22 yards.

A couple of concurrent penalties, as well as minimal to no gains on consecutive plays, the Blue Devils were facing a 4th and 19 stretch with just under a minute left in the opening quarter.

It didn't seem to faze Rhodes as he scanned the field and found his target Culliver for a 28-yard grab to set up shop at the North Lincoln 12-yard line. Culliver finished with 130 yards on five receptions.

Although Maiden nearly fumbled on the next play, sophomore Jacob Sigmon jumped on the ball to save it at the 6-yard line.

On 2nd and 5, Craig was able to power his way through behind his offensive line for the TD – his first of two on the day. The PAT by sophomore kicker Carson Foard was good, and the Blue Devils tied it a 7-all with 16.8 seconds left in the first quarter.

North Lincoln then began its next drive on its own 35-yard line in the final seconds of the quarter. It got off two plays before the quarter ended – including a 5-yard run by tailback Brennen Rogers. Rogers finished the contest with 106 yards on 16 carries.

The Knights only converted one more play on this drive to begin the second quarter – a 2-yard run by Daniel Carter on 3rd and 5 – before being forced to punt by the Blue Devil defense with 11:08 left in the quarter.

Maiden's first drive of the second quarter began on its own 41-yard line. Thanks to a facemask penalty charged to North Lincoln after an 8-yard run by Rhodes on 3rd and 7, the Blue Devils were moved ahead to the Knights' 35-yard line.

Rhodes then connected on another solid throw to one of his favorite targets James for a 35-yard connection down the right side for James' first of three and Rhodes' first of four TDs of the day.

Rhodes finished with 343 yards while going 18-of-31 (58 percent). The PAT by Foard was good, and Maiden took its first lead of the night, 14-7, with 9:49 left in the second quarter.

After the Maiden TD, the Knights attempted its rally back as it began its next drive on its own 40-yard line with 9:44 to play thanks to a facemask penalty on the Blue Devils during the kick return.

North Lincoln's drive was going very well, especially in the run game as Rogers earned 52 yards on three carries, including a 32-yarder and a 15-yarder. The 15-yard run set the Knights up on a 1st and goal from the Maiden 6-yard line.

Just when it seemed like the road team would get the TD on a carry by quarterback Kyle Kovalchuk, Maiden sophomore defensive back Ben Gibbs had different plans. Kovalchuk was about a yard or two shy of the end zone when Gibbs hit him hard enough for the fumble which was then recovered by Maiden with 6:11 left in the half.

Unfortunately, Maiden couldn't get anything going off of the fumble as it had a quick 3-and-out although Rhodes took a shot downfield to Culliver that fell incomplete. On the punt return by North Lincoln's Seth Whitley, he got down to the Maiden 8-yard line.

With that short of a distance to the end zone, the Knights converted on a 3-play drive with the scoring play coming on a 3-yard run by Daniel Carter (who finished with 44 yards on 10 carries). The PAT by Sutton was good, and the road team tied things at 14-all with 3:24 remaining in the first half.

On the Blue Devils' first play of its next drive following North Lincoln's TD, Rhodes saw something was not there and Jack Carter picked him off for the second time with 3:12 left to play.

The drive off of the Maiden turnover (five total turnovers in the win) began at its opposition's 25-yard line with 3:12 left in the half. A couple of concurrent penalties on the road team forced it back to the 35-yard line. On 1st and 20, Maiden's DJ Spring came in for the sack (a 3-yard loss) on Kovalchuk. Gibbs followed with a pass deflection that made it 3rd and 23.

Thanks to a pass interference penalty called on the Blue Devils, the Knights moved back to the original spot on this drive. Quarterback Conner Carson ran for a 3-yard gain which set up a field goal from the 23-yard line. However, the attempt by Sutton was no good with 59.5 seconds left.

Off of the missed field goal, Maiden began its next drive on its own 20-yard line. Two plays later, including concurrent penalties on the Blue Devils, it was facing a 3rd and 10 with 37.1 seconds to go.

Similar to play drawn up earlier in the second quarter in which Culliver was wide open but dropped the pass, Rhodes found him once again wide open. This time, Culliver held onto the ball for the biggest play of the night as he charged down the field for an 80-yard TD. Foard connected on the PAT and gave Maiden a 21-14 lead with 26 seconds left in the half.

In the third quarter, it was all about the Blue Devil defense. North Lincoln began the second half with the ball, but it only mustered up two plays. On 2nd and 5, Rogers was given the ball in the backfield only to fumble. Maiden's Jacob Sigmon recovered the fumble with 11:25 left.

The Blue Devils then began its 12-play scoring drive on its own 36-yard line. This drive was filled with penalties on both sides, but it culminated in a 10-yard connection from Rhodes to James on 2nd and goal. The PAT by Foard was unsuccessful, and Maiden held a 27-14 lead with 7:49 left in the quarter.

On the Knights' following possession, it began its drive pretty well on the ground, but Jack Carter would fumble on 3rd and 1 from the Maiden 34-yard line. The fumble was recovered by senior defensive lineman Daniel Harris with 5:20 left in the third quarter.

Unfortunately, the Blue Devils couldn't convert offensively as its 11-play drive ended as Rhodes threw his third interception of the contest on a pass attempt to James down the left side on 4th and 8 with 1:20 remaining. Knights junior safety Kaleb Peter collected the interception.

The Knights finished the third quarter with the possession and continued its drive to begin the fourth. However, on its opening play of the final frame, Kovalchuk threw an interception to junior defensive lineman Aaron Lefevers in the first 10 seconds of action.

Off of the interception, Maiden began its drive on the North Lincoln 40-yard line. The Blue Devils got out to the 25-yard line set up by a 15-yard reception by James on first down. Two short runs by Craig set up a 3rd and 4 from the 19-yard line. Rhodes then converted on his fourth TD of the game. Foard's PAT was good, and the home team led, 34-14, with 9:51 left to go.

North Lincoln's next drive ended on a turnover on downs as the Blue Devils defense came up with three consecutive stops. The final play was a sack by sophomore defensive lineman Quinn Rembert.

After the defensive stop, the Blue Devils began its final scoring drive on its own 48-yard line. Maiden decided to keep it on the ground with Craig as he earned 47 yards on seven carries which culminated in a 2-yard TD run by Craig. Foard's PAT was unsuccessful, and Maiden held a 40-14 lead with 3:11 remaining.

On its final drive of the game, the Knights ended its 7-play drive with one more TD. Beginning on its own 40-yard line with 3:05 left to go, Jack Carter connected on a 31-yard pass to Whitley. Carter then connected on a 16-yard pass to Wray to bring his team down inside the red zone.

Barring a holding penalty by North Lincoln, Carter once again slung one to Whitley for a 15-yard grab on 2nd and 15. Carter finished with 59 yards on a 3-of-4 clip. On 1st and goal, Carter ran the ball for a 4-yard gain.

Then, Rogers collected his lone TD run on a 1-yarder. Sutton's PAT was successful, and the Knights trailed, 40-21, with 27 seconds left. Following the TD, Rhodes kneeled on first down to run out the clock and win the game.