RUNNING WITH THE DEVIL: Blue Devils’ senior running back Amarion Craig leads ground game in rivalry win over Newton-Conover

Blue Devils' senior tailback Amarion Craig (3) bulldozing his way through the Red Devils defense on Friday, April 2. (O-N-E photo by Michelle Thompson)Maiden senior running back Amarion Craig (3) posing after scoring one of his two rushing TDs on 'Good Friday.' (O-N-E photo by Michelle Thompson)Red Devils' senior running back Allan Shade (24) rushed for 112 yards and one TD in Friday's home loss to Maiden. (O-N-E photo by Michelle Thompson)Newton-Conover senior receiver Quincey Spain (32) earned a 45-yard TD reception in Friday's loss, 33-14. (O-N-E photo by Michelle Thompson)
Marcus Smith
Sports Editor

It was indeed a ‘Good Friday’ for prep varsity football action as the Maiden Blue Devils and Newton-Conover Red Devils competed in the 51st installment of the ‘Battle of the Devils.’

It was a night for firsts in this storied rivalry competing inside of Newton-Conover’s Gurley Stadium on April 2 – the first time the two programs have ever battled on Easter weekend.

Also an added incentive in the feud was the fact that Newton-Conover was looking for its first victory over the Blue Devils since 2014. On the line for the Red Devils, as well, was its playoff hopes as it needed a win to stay alive.

Unfortunately, despite all odds, the Red Devils (2-3, 2-3 South Fork 2A) succumbed to Maiden, 33-14, thanks in large part to the Blue Devils’ run-game, as well as its defensive effort.

“I thought they did a really good job at stopping our run game,” said Red Devils head coach Steve Pack. “Nobody’s done that all year...They’re a really good football team. I mean, they’re 5-0 now. They’ve put up a lot of points. I don’t think we let them score as many as they’ve been scoring. I thought we played well on defense, but I think we had four turnovers. You can’t turn the ball over four times against a team of that caliber. Our game plan was to kind of control the clock, and keep the ball and do some of those things...We had some chances early and we just shot ourselves in the foot a little bit.

“This is a really easy group to coach. All we said [in the locker room] was to forget the first half...We shot ourselves in the foot. We showed them some things we were doing well, and what could’ve happened if we would’ve protected the ball. Our kids play for each other. They love each other...They really wanted to win this game.”

With the loss, the Red Devils’ chances at a 2A state playoff appearance is effectively over. For Maiden (5-0, 5-0), the victory effectively crowned it the 2020-21 South Fork 2A Conference champion outright.

In attendance watching these teams from its respective sidelines were former Blue Devils standout and current potential top-10 NFL Draft prospect Caleb Farley, along with ex-Red Devils All-Conference receiver/defensive back and current Duke defensive back Brandon Johnson.

As far as this match-up, Maiden won the opening coin toss and elected to receive, and it did so mightily getting out to its own 49-yard on the kick-off return.

Starting its drive with 11:51 remaining in the first quarter, the Blue Devils quickly got down the field in just eight plays to score the first touchdown of the contest.

Leading this series was senior running back Amarion Craig as she collected 33 yards on five carries which included the 5-yard TD run. The point-after attempt was converted by sophomore kicker Carson Foard, and Maiden carried a 7-0 lead with 8:03 left in the frame.

The same couldn’t be said for the Red Devils on its first possession following the Blue Devils’ score.

Newton-Conover began its opening drive with great field position via Maiden’s 49-yard line with eight minutes left in the quarter. After senior tailback Allan Shade broke away behind his linemen for a big 15-yard gain, the Red Devils had some hiccups.

Senior quarterback Justice Craig attempted to scramble out of the pocket, but was run down for a 7-yard loss to bring up a 2nd and 17 from the Maiden 41-yard line.

The next play was a minimal gain in the backfield by Shade for three yards as he was stopped by Blue Devils’ senior defensive lineman Daniel Harris abruptly.

Craig did convert on a 7-yard pass attempt to A’Quan Cauthen on 3rd and 14 which ended in a tackle by Amarion Craig. Nevertheless, butter fingers on the snap and handle by Justice Craig forced a fumble for a 6-yard loss and turnover on downs.

Despite this turnover, the Blue Devils didn’t take advantage and earned itself a quick turnover on downs, as well. The biggest play of the short drive beginning on its own 37-yard line was an 8-yard reception by sophomore receiver Chris Culliver (who finished with 71 yards on four receptions)..

Obtaining the possession after Maiden’s quick stint, the Red Devils showed some signs of life with just four minutes in the first quarter thanks to Shade and company. Shade carried the ball on the first four plays for 13 total yards to set up a 2nd and 9 situation from the Blue Devils’ 32-yard line.

Then, Craig found his man via junior wide-out Zane Redmond for a solid 12-yard gain to push his team down into the red zone.

Sophomore tailback Ben Watson found some daylight in the backfield as he garnered a 10-yard run to set up shop on the 10-yard line. Unfortunately, on 1st and goal, Craig lost the handle once again; only this time, Maiden’s junior linebacker Dru McClough recovered the fumble with 1:04 left in the frame.

The Blue Devils were able to run two plays on the ground via Craig for nine total yards before the opening quarter ended.

In terms of the second quarter, time-of-possession was key as Maiden held the clear advantage. The Blue Devils had two drives in the frame, the first being a 14-play drive followed by a 9-play drive to end the quarter.

Maiden’s first drive of the quarter began on its own 20-yard line on 3rd and 1 as it picked up where it left off from the end of the first.

The first two plays of this series were a no-go for the Blue Devils. However, on 2nd and 20 (following a holding penalty called on Maiden), junior quarterback Ethan Rhodes completed a huge 48-yard pass to Culliver. This, in addition to a roughing the passer penalty on the Red Devils, moved Maiden to Newton-Conover’s 29-yard line.

Craig began this new set of downs with a 2-yard loss followed by a little trick play. Culliver attempted to connect on a pass down the right side to senior receiver Brennan James unsuccessfully as he overshot the wide-open James.

Nevertheless, three consecutive runs by Craig (24 yards) moved the chains down to the Red Devil 7-yard line.

A no-gain on the carry by sophomore receiver Ben Gibbs set up a 4th and 1. Rhodes decided to hold onto the ball for a QB keeper and found space on the left side of the field to collect the 7-yard TD. The 2-point conversion was unsuccessful, and Maiden led 13-0 with 6:47 left before halftime.

The Red Devils also had two possessions in the quarter, but they were very short drives.

Following the TD by Maiden, Newton-Conover began its next drive on its own 6-yard line. A big completion from Craig to Redmond for 26 yards pushed the home team out to its own 32-yard line.

After the pickup, the Red Devils attempted a couple of carries by Shade which went nowhere. The first was a no-gain as Cameron Day collected the tackle followed by a 6-yard tackle for a loss by junior linebacker Aaron Lefevers.

On 3rd and 16, Craig attempted another shot downfield to Redmond only to be deflected by Culliver and Gibbs. This forced a punt with just under 4:30 minutes left in the half.

After the punt, Maiden began its next drive from the Red Devil 38-yard line with 4:26 left in half. The Blue Devils marched downfield to set up a 27-yard field goal attempt by Foard which was no good with 18.1 seconds left to go.

Maiden began its final drive of the opening half via a 17-yard connection to Gibbs with the tackle coming by senior defensive back Quincey Spain (who finished with six total tackles). On the next play, Craig lost three yards on the ground via a tackle by Shade (who finished with three total tackles). The only other big play in the series was a 12-yard gain on the ground by Rhodes (who garnered 45 yards on seven carries and two TDs in the game).

After the failed field goal attempt by the Blue Devils, the Red Devils began its next drive from its own 20-yard line. The team only had time for one more play in the half as Shade lost a yard on his carry.

In a great defensive effort by Maiden, it held Shade to only 24 rushing yards in the first half and 112 total rushing yards on carries. It was the first time this season that Shade didn’t accumulate 200 or more yards.

“Coach [Fore] Rembert, Coach [Mark] Herman continued to do a great job with the defense. We knew we had to stop [No.] 24 and make them throw it, and that’s what we did,” said Maiden head coach Will Byrne. “All week, it was ‘focus on 24 [Allan Shade]. Where’s he at? Where’s he at? All eyes on 24.’ Not that we were selling out to it, but our job was to hold him...The defense’s just playing great. The kids believe in what we’re doing defensively, and it showed tonight.”

Beginning the second half with the possession, the Red Devils finally got on the board via a dagger of TD connection for 45 yard from Craig to Spain on 3rd and 6.

Prior to the TD, Spain set his team up with an 11-yard reception. The PAT by kicker Dax Shannon was unsuccessful, and Newton-Conover trailed, 13-6, with 10:02 left in the third quarter. Spain obtained 82 yards on three receptions in this contest.

Spain followed his offensive play with a great defensive one as Maiden headed back onto the field. The Blue Devils couldn’t get anything to follow-through in the first two plays of its drive, which began on its own 43-yard line with 9:53 left in the third.

On 3rd and 11, Rhodes found James up the middle of the field and almost converted the big gain until Spain rammed his way into James to break up the play. This was a hard hit that left James on the ground for a few minutes forcing an official injury timeout. When James was able to get back to his feet and off of the field, the Blue Devils punted.

Newton-Conover began the drive following the punt by McClough at its own 22-yard line with 9:03 left in the frame. A 10-yard connection on 2nd down from Craig to Redmond set the host-team up from its own 33. However, a bad snap and grab by Craig forced another fumble which was once again recovered by Maiden with 8:12 left to go.

After the fumble recovery, it only took the Blue Devils one play to get to the finish line as Craig broke away for a solid 27-yard TD run. The PAT by Foard was good for Maiden to carry a 20-6 lead with 8:04 left in the third. Craig finished with 127 yards on 25 carries.

“You always preach, ‘you get a stop. You get a score, and we’re in good position.’ They did exactly that,” said Byrne. “The run game was what was going tonight. Those guys up front took that mentality...They got great great movement up front, and Amarion [Craig] ran the ball great...Cameron Day, DJ Spring (who got hurt), Dru McClough, Dalton Hurley, Daniel Harris and Jackson Hensley (had to come in for DJ)...Those guys do not get enough credit.”

It took a little bit in the second half of the third quarter, but the Red Devils were finally able to score once more on a 2-yard TD by Shade. Shade rushed for 25 yards in the first three plays.

Then, on 2nd and 11, Craig connected with Redmond for a 21-yard gain to set up 1st and goal from the 6-yard line. Shade ran the ball on consecutive plays to earn the TD with 32.4 seconds left to go in the third quarter. A 2-point conversion throw by Craig to Ben Watson led the Red Devils to make it close, 20-14.

Prior to Newton-Conover’s TD, the Blue Devils began a drive from its own 25-yard line with 6:15 left to go in the frame. The biggest play of that series was a 25-yard grab by sophomore receiver Jacob Sigmon. Sigmon finished the game with 34 yards on two receptions while Rhodes connected with his receivers on a 9-of-21 clip for 151 yards.

“Jacob Sigmon played great at receiver,” said Byrne. “He’s got the best hands on the team. I’ve said it for a long time. He’s doing great. They’re going to key on Brennan [James] and Chris [Culliver]. Last week it was Ben [Gibbs] making plays at receiver. This week, it was Jacob making multiple great catches.”

In the final quarter, both defenses were strong-willed and determined to hold the other down for as long as it could. For the Red Devils, senior Ryan Walker and junior linebacker Xavion Coulter led the way as the duo collected a tackle for a loss apiece in the frame. Coulter finished with a team-best 13 total tackles (after earning a career-high 20 tackles the previous week). Walker obtained eight tackles including three tackles for a loss.

Nevertheless, the Blue Devils did score once more offensively on a 1-yard QB sneak by Rhodes. The 2-point conversion pass attempt by Rhodes was picked off by Watson, but it still led 26-14 with 7:44 remaining. This TD was set up after three timely passes from Rhodes to James and Culliver.

Culliver earned a 10-yard reception on the drive while James collected 30 yards on two grabs (his only receptions of the game).

For the Blue Devils defensively, Lefevers was able to put the icing on the cake with a pick-6 as Craig attempted a throw on 2nd and 5 from the team’s own 25-yard line. The PAT by Foard was good, and Maiden held a 33-14 lead with 2:27 left to go, thus sealing the win.

The Red Devils had one more charge left in them as Shade did his best to score at least one more time. On what would be the final drive of the game, Shade rushed for 42 yards on six carries including a game-high 20 yards on 3rd and 6.

Although its playoff chances are through, Newton-Conover travels to East Lincoln (4-2, 3-2 South Fork 2A) on April 9. With the Mustangs loss against West Lincoln (4-2, 4-2 South Fork 2A) in overtime on Friday, it is also out of playoff contention.

Maiden returns home on April 9 facing Lincolnton (1-4, 1-4 South Fork 2A) in hopes of closing out the regular season unbeaten. Both games kick-off at 7 p.m.