By RYAN HERMAN
DENVER –– As Damarius Valentine turned the corner and hit the gas, Cory Smith saw the only thing standing between his teammate and the end zone was a white jersey.
Smith made the hit of his life, and from that point forward another rout was on.
Chazz Surratt accounted for four touchdowns and the senior lineman’s block helped get the Mustangs going in the second half as they defeated the Blue Devils 42-14 in the second round of the NCHSAA state 2AA playoffs on Friday night.
Third-seeded East Lincoln (9-4) will play its first road playoff game since 2011 this week when it heads to No. 2 Monroe, a 35-14 winner over West Stokes, in the third round.
Valentine scored on the 50-yard punt return –– his first of the season and the Mustangs’ second –– and put his team up 28-7 late in the third quarter.
Although sixth-seeded Maiden (11-2) scored three plays later, it was no match for East Lincoln for the second time this year.
“They were a lot better, especially in that first half,” Smith said of the Blue Devils, who fell at East Lincoln 42-0 three weeks earlier. “(At halftime) we just talked about finishing the game –– finishing it all off.
“(The hit) gave us a little amp to finish off the game.”
Neither team was able to get anything going offensively in the first half –– they combined for seven turnovers in the second quarter alone, four by East Lincoln –– but the Mustangs took advantage of Maiden’s mistakes in the second.
They picked off Maiden quarterback Jake McRee four times, one that was returned by Justin Rhodes for a TD –– his second pick-6 this year –– with 11:27 to play that put a lid on this one.
The Blue Devils, whose two losses were to East Lincoln, took their first drive 76 yards in 12 plays and scored on Ricky Taylor’s 1-yard plunge to take the early one-score lead.
They didn’t score again until McRee connected with Justus Woods, who broke free from two tackles along his own sideline, for a 70-yard TD strike with 3 minutes left in the third quarter.
“We put them in terrible (field) positions. Their only drive was the first of the game –– they scored seven points on a drive,” Mustangs coach Mike Byus said. “They didn’t put drives together, they put one big play together when we missed two tackles. So they had one drive and one big play. Otherwise, our defense played great.”
McRee completed 16 of his 34 pass attempts for 210 yards and the score, but his four interceptions paired with a bad snap picked up by the Mustangs were too much.
Surratt, hampered by a knee injury suffered last week against Bandys, was limited to a season-low 20 yards rushing on just nine carries. But he did score on runs of 3 and 5 yards.
Coleton Banks picked up the slack, rushing for 71 yards on 18 totes.
East Lincoln ran for a season-low 101 yards, and didn’t break the 100-yard mark until 2:45 was left before it officially advanced.
Surratt was 9 of 21 through the air for 185 yards, connecting four times with his younger brother, Sage, for 107 yards and a TD. He also threw three interceptions, two that were batted up at or near the line of scrimmage and pulled down by Maiden.
Chazz Surratt also hit Valentine with a 41-yard TD pass for the junior defensive back’s second two-score game this season.
“It feels great. I’m just happy to be playing on Thanksgiving,” Smith said.
For a while, though, it looked as if neither team wanted the ball, much less to play past last week.
After a 7-7 first quarter –– the Surratts answered Maiden’s early lead on a 35-yard TD through the air with 30 seconds remaining in the period –– the drive chart went as follows: Maiden punt, East Lincoln interception, Maiden turnover on downs, East Lincoln punt, Maiden fumble, East Lincoln interception, Maiden interception on next play, East Lincoln fumble on next play, Maiden field goal blocked, East Lincoln TD, Maiden interception on next play, East Lincoln interception four plays later, end of half.
Aside from Valentine’s TD reception –– on third-and-10 with 50 seconds to the break –– it was an ugly quarter.
“Every time we gave it to them they gave it back to us, and every time they gave it to us we’d give it right back to them,” Byus said. “We got in absolutely no offensive rhythm.”
“I give the credit to them,” Byus said of the Blue Devils. “They came in highly motivated and they played their butts off. They knew what they had to do. They didn’t change a lot (from the first meeting), they just tried to take away some things that we do and did a good job of it.”
When the two Southern District 7 Athletic 2A Conference teams met on Nov. 1, the Mustangs held Maiden to its first scoreless game of the year and season lows in passing yards (107) and rushing yards (24).
This game was a different story. While the final score said blowout, it was anything but.
The Blue Devils outgained the Mustangs 298-286, and kept the East Lincoln offense off the field.
The Mustangs ran 50 total plays to Maiden’s 70, but a special teams score and a defensive touchdown came up huge in the final two quarters and has them practicing on Thanksgiving morning for the fourth time in Byus’ nine years.
“I think we underestimated them from the previous game, blowing them out,” Smith said. “We came out in the second half realizing that it wasn’t going to be a blowout, that it was going to be a tough game.”