After opening the season with a pair of impressive road victories, the East Lincoln Mustangs took the field in front of their home faithful Friday night and didn’t disappoint, scoring on each of its first four possessions en route to a 41-21 victory over the North Gaston Wildcats.
“After watching film this week we felt like if we played with tempo on offense we could have success,” Mustangs head coach David Lubowicz said. “In the first half, and in the first quarter especially, I thought we did a great job executing while playing at the tempo we wanted.”
East Lincoln (3-0) scored early and often, marching the ball 75 yards in less than two minutes on its first possession of the night. Two long runs by senior quarterback Justin Barnette set the Mustangs up in the red zone, and it appeared as though he might tuck the ball and run once more after rolling out of the pocket, but after evading a defender in the backfield he fired a 13-yard strike to Austin Smith in the corner of the end zone to go up 7-0 early.
A second consecutive three-and-out by the Wildcats to open the game gave the ball right back to East Lincoln. This time, it was a series of long passes – two to Lucas McConnell to start the drive and a 30-yard rope to Mikivi Phinx – that set the stage for a Barnette rushing touchdown on the goal line.
A stout Mustangs defense once again held North Gaston without a first down for a third straight possession to open the game, and it didn’t take long for East Lincoln to add its third touchdown of the first quarter. Smith, a junior who lines up primarily in the slot, took the handoff on a reverse and beat a Wildcats defender to the edge before turning upfield for a 36-yard touchdown run to extend the lead to 21-0.
North Gaston was finally able to string together a few first downs on a drive that extended into the second quarter, but after marching deep into Mustangs territory the Wildcats were unable to execute the pitch on a speed option, and linebacker Langdon McCall jumped on the ball for East Lincoln. The turnover would eventually result in Barnette’s second passing touchdown, hitting McConnell over the top for a 31-yard scoring strike.
On North Gaston’s very next offensive snap following the fumble, the Wildcats once again botched the pitch on an option run. This time, however, North Gaston was deep in its own territory, allowing Paulie Menegay to scoop and score to give the Mustangs a 35-0 lead at halftime.
East Lincoln began mixing in its second-string players in the second half, and a fumbled snap on its own goal line set up the Wildcats with prime field position, allowing North Gaston to finally crack the scoreboard midway through the third quarter.
The Mustangs would answer early in the fourth, when sophomore running back Orlandis Howell-Johnson knifed through the Wildcats defense for a 36-yard touchdown run to push East Lincoln’s advantage to 41-7.
North Gaston continued to fight, adding two more touchdowns in quick succession late in the game to pull within 20 points, with a 41-21 final score.
“Penalties are the one thing that got us into some trouble tonight,” Lubowicz said. “That hadn’t been a problem in the first two games, but then all of a sudden when we get up on a team early, we got lax. I’m a little upset that we didn’t keep our focus from start to finish, but obviously I’m pleased with the outcome. I just want us to be perfect.”
The Mustangs will welcome another foe from Gaston County next Friday, when the East Gaston Warriors make the trip to Denver to close out non conference play.