EDENTON — Ultimately, it was a good win. A great one, maybe.
But for more than three quarters of Friday night’s 37-30 come-from-behind victory over Bertie, Edenton seemingly did everything it could to allow the Falcons to prevail in the Northeastern Coastal Conference opener for both teams.
Going into the early part of the fourth quarter, the Aces (5-0, 1-0) had fumbled away the ball four times. Two were returned for touchdowns and a third led to a field goal, helping the Falcons (3-2, 0-1) score 20 unanswered points to take a 30-22 lead.
“I don’t want to take anything away from Bertie, they played their hearts out,” Aces coach Wes Mattera said after Edenton extended its regular-season winning streak to 14 games. “For about three quarters we played as bad as we could play. We laid it on the ground, we turned it over, we let them run it back. We were our own worst enemy.
“But when we got the ball with about 10 minutes left, we went to work. I told our kids after the game, 'We stared the enemy in the face and said, bring it.’ And we moved the ball right down the field.”
The Aces’ offense, so imperfect for so much of the night, was flawless down the stretch.
Edenton tied the game 30-30 by driving 64 yards on 10 plays with Tavis Stanley bursting in off tackle from 7 yards out with 6:39 left to play and Kashese Bond powering in for a two-point conversion.
The winning score was achieved on a 72-yard, eight-play drive that culminated in an 8-yard touchdown pass from quartersback R.J. Leary to fullback Marcus Jackson with 59 seconds left in the game.
It was a stunning call by the Edenton coaching staff. The Aces had put themselves in position for the win by running the ball on its previous 24 plays. And Jackson, a senior, had only one other career reception to his credit.
But in the huddle, Jackson wasn’t the least bit surprised when he heard the play.
“We’ve been working on it all week,” he said. “Right before the game the coaches said they ain’t seen it before, so in crunch time, I knew we would use it.”
Leary fired a head-high pass at Jackson just after he swung out of the backfield.
“It was a little five-and-out and I caught it .. hard ball, soft hands,” Jackson said with a big smile.
“We’ve been repping that pass all season long in practice and Marcus has been catching it,” Mattera said. “Down there my assistants saw the safety was biting in hard on the run and we thought we could catch them sleeping, so we threw play-action into the flat and the big fellow was open. Once he got the rock, he got in the end zone.”
Of course, the play would not have been possible had the Edenton offensive line not been driving the Falcons off the ball on both drives.
“It all starts up front,” said Bond, who rushed for 191 yards on 20 carries. “The blocking was great, wonderful. We just pushed the ball straight down the field.”
Javonte Sutton, who normally plays only on the defensive line, was forced to play tight end in the fourth quarter when Tycorrick Johnson was injured and was a key performer on the last two drives.
“He played his butt off, just bashing people,” Mattera said.
“I play O-line in practice just in case we have situations like this,” Sutton said. “At the end there, it felt like a state championship arena. We played our hearts out. We gave it our all. All the work we do paid off.”
Initially, it didn’t seem like Edenton was going to need any late-game heroics to win. After spotting Bertie a first-period field goal following a fumbled punt, Stanley returned the ensuing kickoff 87 yards for a touchdown, Jackson scored on a 2-yard run and Bond registered the first of his two conversion runs for a 15-3 lead.
A 16-yard fumble return by Nagei Lee pulled the Falcons to within 15-10, but the Aces responded with a 3-yard scoring run by Leary to go up 22-10 with 9:10 left in the half.
Bertie closed to 22-16 with 1:18 remaining in the half after a long pass set up a 7-yard TD throw by David Watford to Shykie Mitchell and the Falcons took the lead at 23-22 when Jalen Simmons ran 49 yards with a fumble return at the start of the third period.
A brilliant fourth-down tackle of Watford by Zach Valentine and Anthony Graham right by the goal line pylon prevented another Bertie score later in the third period, but the Falcons went ahead 30-22 with 10:04 to play when Jacquil Hafix scored on an 18-yard run three plays after Edenton’s fourth fumble gave them possession at the Aces’ 24.
That’s when things looked the most bleak for the defending NCC champions.
“Sometimes in football you are going to have those nights where nothing goes right, our team could have folded the tent when we got down by eight,” Mattera said.
“But we go down the field and score, get the two-point conversion, get the ball back and score again. I can’t say enough about the kids and the assistant coaches.
“That’s the heart of a champion. That’s will, that’s weight room, that’s running track. That’s, 'I’m not going to quit on my teammates.’”
And that’s why Edenton is still undefeated.