By MIKE POWELL
Special to the LTN
MONROE –– In a giddy swing of momentum late in the first half, East Lincoln saw its bid for a second straight state championship begin to unravel.
Instead of taking a one-touchdown lead into the half, the Mustangs found themselves trailing after an improbable pass play that changed everything.
As a result, Monroe carried that momentum into the second half, scoring on two straight possessions and adding a pick-6 to turn a defensive-minded game into a convincing 34-13 win Friday night in the third round of the NCHSAA state 2AA football playoffs.
The outcome ended East Lincoln’s season at 9-5 and a string of playoff wins over two seasons at seven. Monroe (12-2) advanced to the Western Regional final to face Union County rival Parkwood.
An East Lincoln fumble inside the Monroe 5 when the game was still scoreless marked the beginning of the seismic momentum shift.
Two series later, the Redhawks started a possession at the East Lincoln 42 with less than a minute left in the half. Improbably, with 1.3 seconds showing, Monroe completed a 34-yard touchdown pass.
“In conjunction with the turnover, I thought we should have been up 7-0 at the half,” East Lincoln coach Mike Byus said. “Instead we blew a coverage and they got up 8-0. That’s what happens when you are young.”
The scoring play started a 28-0 run for the Redhawks that gave them control. The Mustangs scored twice in the fourth quarter on passes of 33 and 19 yards from Chazz Surratt to brother Sage Surratt to pull East Lincoln to 28-13.
However, an ensuing onside kick, though well executed, did not go East Lincoln’s way.
“We have a bunch of young kids out here, a sophomore quarterback, a sophomore running back, and a freshman running back,” Byus said. “Unfortunately, we did not play our best tonight, and when you get this round, you better play your best.”
A huge reason for the Mustangs’ struggles was the fast, physical Monroe defense. East Lincoln could not establish any semblance of a running game, and then had to throw after falling behind.
“It doesn’t matter if Emmitt Smith reincarnated is out there, we had no running lanes whatsoever,” Byus said. “We could do nothing. They swarmed, they were fast, and I like to say fast with a couple of extra A’s in there.”
The first half was a study in gritty defense, turnovers, and field position –– except for the one big play in which Monroe quarterback Zephaniah Walls heaved the 34-yard Hail Mary touchdown pass to Jaylan Barbour.
Walls had valuable seconds to wait for Barbour to lose the East Lincoln defender at the 5-yard line, and all Barbour had to do was gather in the pass in the end zone.
Chase Byrum’s 2-point conversion run completed the stunning turn of events to send the Redhawks into the break up 8-0.
The Mustangs had horrible field position throughout the half, starting possessions at their 22, 21, 21, 15, 5 and 11 yard lines. East Lincoln’s best drive of the opening 24 minutes ended with a Surratt fumble at the Monroe 4.
Conversely, the Redhawks began four of their six first half possessions inside East Lincoln territory, twice at the 42 and the other at the 16.
East Lincoln punted five times in the first half and had one blocked.
Chazz Surratt appeared to be at less than full strength from the opening series, perhaps showing the effects from an lingering ankle injury in the first round. On the other hand, Monroe’s defense had something to do with Surratt’s ineffectiveness, swarming to the ball and limiting the quarterback to 26 yards rushing on 13 carries in the first half.