The East Lincoln Mustangs paid a visit to Newton-Conover on the final Friday night of the regular season and ran into an inspired Red Devils squad on Senior Night, falling 42-21 and settling for a fourth-place finish in the South Fork 2A.
The game opened with an East Lincoln three-and-out, which preceded a 40-yard touchdown bomb from Justice Craig to Zane Redmond on Newton-Conover’s first play from scrimmage. The connection was the first of four touchdown passes from Craig to Redmond in the contest.
The Mustangs found a rhythm on offense on their second possession, moving the ball into Newton-Conover territory, but the drive ended abruptly when Justin Barnett’s pass went through his receiver’s hands, resulting in a Red Devils interception.
The East Lincoln defense responded, however, pressuring Craig into an intentional grounding penalty that forced Newton-Conover to punt out of its own end zone, setting the Mustangs up with prime field position. East Lincoln would go on to tie the game at 7-7 just two plays later on Paulie Menegay’s 20-yard touchdown run.
The Red Devils ate up the final six minutes of the first quarter with a 12-play drive deep into Mustangs territory, but the East Lincoln defense stood tall once more, when freshman linebacker Ben Cutter intercepted a pass in the end zone on the final play of the opening quarter.
Like the first quarter, the second opened with a Mustangs three-and-out, which gave way to another Newton-Conover scoring drive. The Red Devils recaptured the lead at 14-7 when senior running back Allen Wilfong found the end zone from six yards out.
East Lincoln couldn’t build on a long pass from Barnett to freshman Markell Clark to open its next possession, ultimately punting the ball back to Newton-Conover. The Mustangs forced the Red Devils into a fourth down on the ensuing drive, but an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty was called on East Lincoln coming out of a timeout, resulting in a first down that eventually led to an 8-yard touchdown pass from Craig to Redmond.
Mistakes continued to plague the Mustangs as East Lincoln saw the game start to slip away late in the first half. Menegay fumbled, setting up the Red Devils inside the red zone, and Craig found Redmond yet again on a screen pass for a 5-yard touchdown that put the Mustangs in a 28-7 hole at halftime.
With playoff positioning on the line, East Lincoln head coach David Lubowicz gambled with an onside kick to open the second half, and it paid off as the Mustangs recovered at midfield. Facing third-and-goal, Barnett found Menegay in the flat for a 10-yard touchdown pass to cut the deficit to 28-14 early in the third quarter.
East Lincoln couldn’t build on that momentum, however, as the Red Devils marched right back down the field to push their advantage back to 21 points when Craig hit Redmond with another screen pass that went 13 yards for a touchdown.
With Newton-Conover leading 35-14, in possession of the ball and looking to put the game out of reach late in the third quarter, it was Cutter once again who injected life into the Mustangs with his second interception of the night. Barnett found senior receiver Trevor Filo on a slant route for a 17-yard touchdown pass on the very next play, bringing East Lincoln within 14 points once again at 35-21 entering the fourth quarter.
The Red Devils couldn’t convert a 35-yard field goal midway through the final quarter, but the Mustangs couldn’t do anything with the ball upon taking over.
East Lincoln came up with another stop on defense, and the offense trotted back out down 14 with four minutes left to play for one last-gasp effort. With the Mustangs in desperation mode, Barnett fired a pass across the middle of the field that was intercepted and returned 49 yards for a touchdown to ice the game at 42-21.
East Lincoln actually outgained the Red Devils in a losing effort, totaling 296 yards compared to 290 for Newton-Conover. The Red Devils won the turnover battle 3-2, however, and the Mustangs were flagged for more than 60 penalty yards, while Newton-Conover committed just two penalties.
Barnett completed 15-of-24 passes for 135 yards with 2 touchdowns and 2 interceptions for East Lincoln. Filo led the team in receiving with 3 catches for 55 yards, including the touchdown, while senior Cole Barber was the team’s leading rusher with 59 yards on 10 carries. Menegay delivered an all-around performance, carrying the ball five times for 55 yards and a touchdown, while also catching 2 passes for 13 yards and another score.
With the loss, East Lincoln will now have to go on the road in the first round of the playoffs to face the Burns Bulldogs.