By RYAN HERMAN
A sign hangs in the East Lincoln locker room that serves as a reminder of a simple component to successful football: It’s better to receive the ball than to give it away.
Lincolnton gave it away Friday, and the Mustangs happily accepted the gifts.
East Lincoln turned three Wolves turnovers into scores, and Chazz Surratt and the Mustangs offense got going in the second half as they won 28-9 at Memorial Stadium.
Lincolnton held the Southern District 7 Athletic 2A Conference’s top offense to a season-low 287 yards –– 81 in the first half –– but East Lincoln was able to put points on the board by taking away the football.
“We’ve got a sign in our locker room that says, ‘Ball security.’ We mention that every time before we hit the field: Be solid through your handoffs, be meticulous in your ball handling and mesh points,” Byus said.
“It came down to, they made a couple turnovers, and we were able to capitalize on it.”
Surratt, the league’s top rusher in an offense that was averaging more than 450 yards and 40 points per game heading in, was held to 10 yards rushing and 70 yards passing in the first half. But he found a way to finish with 123 yards rushing and two touchdowns, and completed 6 of 11 passes for 93 yards and a score.
Although Lincolnton played defense as good as it has all season –– the Wolves ran 41 offensive plays in the first half compared to 17 for East Lincoln –– they were kept out of the end zone by their own mistakes.
“Defensively, I thought we played good enough to compete offensively. We just turned the ball over,” Lincolnton coach Scott Cloninger said.
Lincolnton’s defense got started early, forcing the Mustangs (5-1, 2-0) to a three-and-out on the game’s opening drive.
The Wolves (3-3, 1-1) then marched 78 yards in 12 plays to score when Jordon Easter hit Justice Charles with a 10-yard TD pass with 6:04 left in the first quarter.
The PAT was blocked. It was also the last PAT they attempted.
The Wolves again stopped the Mustangs on their next drive, thanks in part to Tyron Roberts’ sack of Surratt that cost them 12 yards. East Lincoln then missed a 42-yard field goal attempt, giving Lincolnton the ball at its own 20.
Two plays later Easter completed a pass to Quinlyn Harris, but he got spun around and lost the football. Billy Misenheimer scooped it up and returned it 15 yards to the 10.
Surratt hit Malik Nixon with a TD pass on the very next play, and after Brandon Strupp’s extra point the Mustangs went ahead for good.
“You’re not going to beat a good team when you turn the ball over,” Cloninger said. “We played well enough to play with people but not win.”
Starting deep in its own territory on its next drive, Lincolnton gave it away again when Easter fumbled in his own end zone. Cody Mocilin fell on the football, and after the PAT East Lincoln led 14-6.
The Wolves followed by starting again deep in their own territory –– their average starting position was their own 29 –– but this time they drove the field and reached the East Lincoln 14.
With first-and-10 from the 14, the Mustangs clamped down, and forced Lincolnton into a field goal attempt, which was wide.
Two drives later, Grahm Willis connected on a 30-yard field goal to make it 14-9.
The teams went into halftime with the Wolves holding a decisive edge offensively –– 168-81 in total yards plus the difference in plays ran –– but the Mustangs won the turnover battle.
“Those turnovers they gave us gave us a short field, and that’s what got them behind the 8-ball,” Byus said.
Lincolnton opened the second half with a punt, then Surratt lost the football after a hard hit, on which Lincolnton’s Ty Smith fell at the East Lincoln 24.
Two plays later, East Lincoln laid a big hit on Charles, where helmet met the ball, and it popped straight up and into the hands of T.J. McClain.
Eight plays later, including a 50-yard run by Surratt, the sophomore Division I recruit scored on a 4-yard run to go up 21-9 with 4:37 left in the third.
With its defense and offense settling in, East Lincoln’s offense generated its own score early in the fourth.
Surratt had a 44-yard run and Coleton Banks took his only carry for 26 yards to set up Surratt’s 5-yard score with 9:20 to play.
“(The Wolves) played hard; you’ve got to give them credit. You can throw the records out when we play. It’s a rivalry game,” Byus said. “We didn’t get too many possessions tonight, which was their plan. We only put 28 points on the board tonight.”
Surratt, who has offers from North Carolina, N.C. State and Clemson, was sacked four times, three by Roberts, but got going in the second half.
The Mustangs, who were averaging a SD-7-best 450.2 yards per game going in, outgained Lincolnton 206-56 over the final 24 minutes.
It was the second game this season where turnovers played a factor in the Wolves coming up short. At North Gaston on Sept. 6, they committed four turnovers –– three fumbles –– to zero for the Wildcats in the 10-7 loss.
The three turnovers on Friday gives Lincolnton nine giveaways in its last four games.
“I’ve been coaching a long time. We preach ball in the outside arm. We preach when contact’s coming two hands on the ball. I wish I knew (the answer), and I’m being very honest,” Cloninger said. “A lot of it’s the other team and how hard they hit you. … When the ball pops in the air 10 feet, helmet goes to ball, and there’s nothing you can do about that when somebody’s hitting you. (The other fumbles) shouldn’t happen.
“We’ll challenge them again next week and get ready for Bandys. We’re going to get better. I’m not saying we’re playing bad, we just turned the ball over.”