Sometimes it takes a while for the home team in the first game of the regional playoffs to fire on all cylinders. Friday night, it took about 45 of the game’s 48 minutes before fourth-seeded Goochland figured out how to turn back an upset bid from fifth-seeded Culpeper County.
Thanks to a key defensive stand, a two-minute drill propelled by three huge passes, and a reliable special teams operation to tack on the PAT, Goochland punched its ticket to the Region 3B semifinal round with a 24-23 victory.
“We have a dedicated senior class and this program has a very deep culture,” said Goochland senior Kai Burton. “We don’t like losing on this field in general, and we don’t like losing in the playoffs.”
With the Blue Devils holding a six-point lead and facing third-and-10 with just over three minutes remaining, if the Bulldogs’ defense allowed a conversion, then winter sports practices would be on their Monday agenda.
“At that point in time, it was going to take everything in us, it was going to be the play of our careers, so we went out there and made it,” Burton said.
Culpeper dialed up a screen pass, and the second-level defenders converged quickly to limit the play to a gain of one.
“We knew the screen was coming,” said sophomore linebacker Corey Mullins. “We saw it on film and went over it in practice a lot. As soon as I saw [the back] coming, I knew it was a screen, and we were there.”
After a blindside block penalty on the ensuing punt return, the Bulldogs’ offense took over at their own 38 with 2:46 on the clock. Just as things had gone for much of the night, they quickly faced third-and-long. But senior quarterback C.J. Towles remained calm.
“I just stayed patient,” said Towles. “I knew we had to score, but not on that play right there. I just gave it time.”
Towles rolled right, drawing a linebacker up to the line of scrimmage before firing to senior receiver Eyan Pace in now-open space just beyond the sticks. Pace turned and picked up another 10 yards. After a sack and incompletion, the pair connected again on a deep slant that went for 25 yards to convert third-and-19, even before tacking on a roughing the passer penalty.
“We stayed poised and executed everything we do in practice,” said Pace. “Honestly, I just took what they gave me. I have to thank my quarterback for seeing me.”
As the clock ticked under a minute, Towles went right back to the air. This time his target was senior receiver Jason Woodson, who ran a wheel route out of the slot and had his linebacker beat by five yards.
“I knew they were going to blitz and I had the wheel wide open, so I just took it,” said Woodson.
“My wide receivers try to make it easier for me when I’ve got to scramble,” said Towles. “Pressure came and I just got out of the pocket. [Woodson]’s throwing his hand up, throwing his hand up, and I just delivered it to him and let him make the play.”
Tyler Black drilled the go-ahead extra point to put Goochland up for good with 52 seconds left. After a touchback on the ensuing kickoff, with Culpeper out of timeouts, the defense allowed three short passes that drained the remaining time as the Blue Devils only reached their own 36.
The strong kickoff was Black’s fourth touchback of the game. But the Bulldogs’ special teams started the night with a surprise onside kick, securing the offense a bonus possession that ended with Black knocking home a 22-yard field goal for an early 3-0 lead.
“I think it was Saturday morning where I was like, we’re going to start with an onside kick,” said Goochland coach Alex Fruth. “We were watching the tape and the kid on the front line was leaving really early. It was one of those moments where it was too good not to do it.”
The score remained 3-0 through the first quarter. Goochland’s defense came up with the game’s first turnover with a fumble recovery at the Culpeper 40, but the offense could not pick up a first down. The field position advantage was lost as well when a snap on a punt got loose and the Blue Devils’ Jakari Edwards scooped and returned it 20 yards to the Bulldogs’ 20 yardline. Culpeper managed one first down but had to settle for a game-tying 25-yard field goal from RJ Uribe with 10:19 left in the first half.
The teams traded punts before Towles slipped through the right side on a QB draw and took it all the way for a 46-yard touchdown. The Bulldogs led 10-3 at the break.
In the second half, Culpeper hitched its wagon to Malachi Terrell. The junior running back had 10 carries for 46 yards in the first half, but his number got called 22 times in the second. After Goochland went three-and-out to open the third quarter, he evened the score 10-10 on the Blue Devils’ first possession by breaking a 60-yard touchdown.
The Bulldogs’ second turnover of the game came next as Towles’s lateral swing pass bounced short of its target and linebacker Larry Willimas fell on the loose ball. Terrell then carried on five of Culpeper’s ensuing six plays, picking up 36 yards including a six-yard score to grab the Blue Devils their first lead of the game with 17 seconds left in the third.
Goochland’s offense responded when Towles fired to Derek Pierce in the left-side slot and the sophomore wideout slipped two tackles in the middle of the field for a 54-yard catch-and-run score.
“We had a vert call by the two inside receivers, and one of the outside backers off fast, so the window opened up and I tried to get it to [Pierce] as fast as I could,” said Towles. “He’s a playmaker and just makes plays.”
It was the first sign of life for the Bulldog offense after the break, as the third quarter featured no first downs and a turnover.
“We had called that concept six or eight times and just never connected, or even got [the pass] off,” said Fruth. “Sometimes it’s just persistence, or knuckleheadedness. The o-line did a much better job in the fourth quarter giving us some time, and C.J. was a little more comfortable in the pocket.”
Unfortunately for the defense, the series was only three plays, sending them right back out to face Terrell with 11:07 left in a 17-17 game. Culpeper marched 80 yards in nine plays. Sophomore quarterback Bennett Sutherland converted an early third-and-long with a slant to Cole Plaster, which went for a pickup of 45 yards. Terrell covered the rest, aided by an unnecessary roughness flag on the Bulldogs. On fourth-and-2 from the Goochland 6, the Blue Devils initially sent out their field goal unit, but after trying (and failing) to draw the Bulldogs offside and burning their final timeout, the offense took the field and Terrell powered up the middle and across the goal line. Crucially, the point-after kick was no good, leaving the score 23-17 with 5:57 remaining.
“We knew going into this that [Terrell] was a super-physical kid,” said Fruth. “Everybody we talked to talked about how he just wears you out, and tonight we saw that.”
Goochland’s offense next went three-and-out, but Black uncorked a 45-yard punt to pin the Blue Devils at their own 12 with 4:55 still to play. Terrell picked up chunks of 8 and 7 yards on Culpeper’s next two snaps before the Bulldogs’ defense awoke to the urgency of the situation. Terrell’s next two carries went for no yards. Fruth spent Goochland’s second timeout with 3:12 on the clock, setting the stage for the Bulldogs’ defensive stand.
Terrell finished with 186 yards on 32 carries for the Blue Devils. Sutherland completed 9-of-13 passes for 91 yards.
As the Bulldogs advance another round in November, they will certainly need to cut down on penalties and turnovers. Goochland drew 10 flags for 104 yards in the game, including four personal fouls, and Culpeper converted two fumbles into 10 points. Towles rushed 16 times for 74 yards, but netted minus-5 in the second half. He completed 7-of-16 passes for 154 yards, accounting for 111 of the Bulldogs’ 115 yards of offense after the break. Pace was his top target with four receptions for 78 yards.
Goochland (6-5) heads to Falls Church next Friday for a semifinal matchup with No. 1-seed Meridian (9-2).