East Lincoln’s reliable defense is a big reason why the Mustangs are headed to the 3A state football championship game next weekend.
The Mustangs stopped two South Point drives in the game’s final five minutes, including an interception at the goal line on the final play, and won the West 3A Regional title 14-7 Friday night.
Playing before a packed, standing-room-only crowd in Denver that observers said was one of the largest crowds in school history, East Lincoln managed to win on a night when its explosive offense moved the ball well but only found the end zone twice.
East Lincoln will play for the 3A title at 7 p.m. next Saturday at N.C. State’s Carter-Finley Stadium against East Region champ Northern Nash.
It will be a meeting of 15-0 teams.
While East Lincoln has scored 578 points this season, the Mustangs have also thrived behind a defense that has allowed only 87.
That Mustang defense passed a huge test in the final 40 seconds, which were full of twists and turns.
On fourth-and-14 at the South Point 34, East Lincoln went for a first down with less than a minute to play, but quarterback Tyler Mizzell (who committed to Wake Forest last week) was stopped 2 yards short of the first down.
South Point (12-2), which averages only five passes a game, found itself 78 yards from the East Lincoln end zone with 40 seconds to play and no timeouts left.
Forced to pass the ball, Red Raider freshman quarterback Patrick Blee completed a 38-yard throw to Elijah Phifer, on a play when an East Lincoln defender fell. That put the ball at the Mustang 40, and Blee completed another pass for a first down at the 27.
With 15 seconds left, Blee appeared to be sacked, but East Lincoln was whistled for a facemask penalty. That moved the ball to the Mustang 12 with seven seconds remaining.
Blee rolled out to the right and tried to find a receiver, but his pass was intercepted by Ben Cutter, a West Virginia commit playing middle linebacker who also doubles as a running back.
“I just read the quarterback’s eyes,” Cutter said.
It was the second time that East Lincoln stopped South Point in the final minutes.
With about four minutes remaining, Mustang junior defensive end Marcel Johnson sacked Blee near midfield on a fourth-down play.
East Lincoln piled up a 24-10 advantage in first downs, and sophomore running back Chris Daley rushed for 113 yards in the game, but only two of the Mustangs’ possessions ended in scores.
East Lincoln scored on the game’s opening series, as an 85-yard drive ended with Daley’s 5-yard touchdown run.
The Mustangs recovered a fumble on South Point’s first drive but were stopped on downs at the 10. Another East Lincoln drive into South Point territory ended with a missed field goal by the Mustangs.
But the Mustangs built their lead to 14-0 late in the third quarter, when Cutter ran one yard for a touchdown.
South Point answered, using two long pass plays and a big run to move to the East Lincoln 2. Cam Medlock then scored on a run, cutting the Mustangs’ lead to 14-7.
That set up the game’s pulsating finish.
Steve Lyttle on Twitter: @slyttle
South Point 0 0 0 7 – 7
East Lincoln 7 0 7 0 – 14
EL – Chris Daley 5 run (Chris Mileta kick)
EL – Ben Cutter 1 run (Mileta kick)
SP – Cam Medlock 2 run (Charlie Birtwistle kick)