POCA — A couple of bad breaks, a few tough-luck bounces, and one absolutely unstoppable force in Poca’s Ethan Payne spoiled North Marion’s most successful season in the past 18 years on Saturday in the first round of the Class AA playoffs at Poca High School.
Payne charred the Huskies for 292 yards and five touchdowns on 21 carries to lead the No. 3-seeded and undefeated Dots to a 42-27 victory over North Marion for the program’s first playoff win since 2006. The Dots (11-0) will host No. 6 Oak Glen in a battle of undefeateds in next week’s Class AA quarterfinal matchup.
“I was really proud of our team as far as continuing to compete throughout because there were several times where it felt like it really got away from us,” said Hays, whose Huskies fell into a 21-0 hole midway through the second quarter. “But the ball didn’t bounce our way very many times and we didn’t make our own luck.
“Props to them, they capitalized on positive plays on their end and they capitalized on turnovers on our end.”
Payne scored on three of Poca’s first four possessions, while North Marion (7-4) stumbled to a three-and-out and back-to-back interceptions on its first three series as the Dots catapulted out to that 21-0 lead with just over seven minutes to go in the first half. The bulk of Poca’s opening 21-point surge was constructed on the explosive and dynamic running of Payne behind a stellar Dots offensive line, but Poca’s fortunes were buoyed by a couple of timely bounces and deflections.
On the Dots’ opening drive, a third-down conversion on a crosser from Poca quarterback Jay Cook to Matt Stone was originally ruled as a fumble and recovery by North Marion, but upon a meeting from the officials, the call was overturned and Stone was declared down before coughing it up. The reversal set up the Dots with a first down they eventually turned into a 4-yard TD run by Payne to finish off a 7-play, 55-yard scoring march.
An NMHS three-and-out was parlayed into a 14-0 Poca lead when Cook launched to Toby Payne, Ethan’s younger brother, on a 47-yard gain in 1-on-1 coverage down the sideline before Ethan Payne cashed in for his second touchdown a play later. Then North Marion, already beleaguered with the overturned fumble and a pair of holding penalties early, absorbed another gut punch when a pass from senior quarterback Gunner Murphy was tipped up in the air by his intended target Garrett Conaway and cradled in by a diving Toby Payne for an INT to thwart an 8-play drive that was on the cusp of cracking the red zone.
“I would’ve liked to go back and replay that game if we get that first fumble because I really felt like it was a fumble and I felt like it could’ve changed the complexion of the entire game,” said Hays, who made the importance of the overturn known in-game with a tongue lashing for the officiating crew. “But we talk about that all the time: Every game is dictated by a play or two here and there. Some of them are 100 percent on us and some of them are beyond our control.
“But our response wasn’t good.”
After Payne burned North Marion on one of Poca’s pattened power tosses via a 76-yard sprint up the right side numbers for his third TD of the day, the Huskies were reeling from both the aftershock of Payne’s detonation as well as a few deflating bouts of sheer hard luck.
Steadily, however, the Huskies ground their way back. Murphy, who went 24-of-34 for 263 yards with three TDs and three INTs while also adding a rushing TD, was the catalyst for NMHS with patient preciseness in his reads and throws. North Marion ticked off a series of dink-and-dunk passes to the trio of Jahkari Mesidor, Tariq Miller and Ty Thorne, prying at Poca’s underneath coverages in the flats and over the middle on crossers and hitches to establish a rhythmic passing attack. The Mesidor-Miller-Thorne triad combined for 21 catches for 239 yards and a touchdown apiece on the day, with Mesidor’s 10 grabs for 122 yards and a TD leading the way.
“Gunner, there were some windows he was hitting that had me puckered on the sidelines, but he was sticking it in there. He was Gunner — last week was atypical of him — I thought he did a great job,” said Hays of Murphy, who had 171 of his 263 yards in the second half.
“(Poca) changed some things (coverage-wise), they got up in our grill a little bit more than we saw on tape and didn’t give us the space, which is a credit to slot our guys, especially, because they can make some plays in space. We were able to get past them a couple of times and I thought Jahkari did great things all game long, but in 20/20 hindsight maybe we should’ve taken a couple more shots over the top with Tariq.”
North sewed together an 11-play, 86-yard drive on its final possession of the half to get on the board on a 1-yard pass from Murphy to Thorne, with Mesidor snagging grabs of 12 and 11 yards, while also drawing a first down via pass interference on third down early on to get the drive moving.
Then NMHS received the opening kickoff of the second half and pieced together another long, sustaining a drive, this one an 11-play, 79-yard march that featured Miller’s dynamism as the defining trait. Miller drew a pass interference for a first down on a third-down deep shot, and then he capped the drive by catching an in-breaking route before dipping and dodging his way through the Poca secondary for a 22-yard TD to slice Poca’s lead to 21-14.
Just a minute later, though, and Ethan Payne was back in the end zone for his fourth TD of the day, this one covering 42 yards, to double up North Marion at 28-14 midway through the third. The play was a depiction of the struggles defenses face in attempting to corral Payne as North had him boxed in from the right and left on the dive play up the middle. But Payne flashed a little shake-and-bake to freeze NMHS’s defenders before splitting them and breaking into daylight.
“He’s the real deal. He’s a really strong runner,” Hays said of Payne, who had almost dead even first half-second half rushing splits with 148 yards in the first half on 11 carries and 144 yards in the second on 10 carries.
Down two scores at 28-14, North Marion was again dealt a sour hand when Poca’s ensuing squib kickoff ricocheted off an NMHS player on the front line and into the Dots’ possession, amounting to an unintentional onside kick that gave Poca the ball at midfield. Following the 4th-and-5 conversion on a hitch route to Toby Payne for a 30-yard gain, after he spun out to turn it up, Cook scored on a 1-yard QB sneak to balloon the Dots’ lead to 35-14.
North rallied to keep within shouting distance with a 13-play, 82-yard drive early in the fourth quarter that was bolstered by a 37-yard jump-ball catch by Mesidor to get the ball down to the 1-yard line before Murphy dove for the pylon and the TD on a 4th-and-goal rollout. The Huskies even initially appeared to recover the ensuing onside kick, but the recovering NMHS player was deemed to have been touching the sideline, equating to a kick out of bounds and Poca ball.
“I know our fans weren’t very happy with it, but his legs were out of bounds and no part can be out,” Hays said. “However, when one of my assistants watched it on film, he said the guy who was out of bounds was not the one who came up with the recovery. So that’s something entirely different to look at.
“I don’t envy (the officials), they got a tough job out there, but if we get the first turnover, maybe this (recovery) or what I thought was a PI on one of their (interceptions) — a couple plays here and there and we’re right back in the game.”
Payne increased the Poca lead back to 21 on the heels of the Dots’ onside recovery with a 63-yard run, giving him scores of 4, 3, 76, 42 and 63 yards on the day. It was the final straw for a North Marion squad that couldn’t seem to catch Payne or a break for practically the entire game, which culminated in a painful end to the winningest season of Hays’ 11-year tenure.
“They’re a picture of commitment,” Hays said of his senior class. “Those are guys who were either not on the team or were little twerps as freshmen. So they’re just a testament to what you can be if you really sell out and commit.
“And because of that commitment, they’re going to mold well in 10 years when we see what kind of husbands they are, what kind of dads they are, what kind of employees they are. I’m just proud of them.”
Email Bradley Heltzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @bradheltzTWV.