To pull a playoff upset on the road, you need to win the turnover battle and control the line of scrimmage. With a final stat sheet showing that Goochland lost the former 3-to-1 and the home team rushed for 414 yards, it’s no surprise that top-seed Meridian punched their ticket to the Region 3B final with a 40-21 victory.
“That style of offense is really, really, really tough,” said Goochland coach Alex Fruth. “If you’re not able to duplicate it during the week, you’re never going to be really prepared for it. They just brought more hats to the point of attack every time. Our kids looked like they were backpedaling a lot of times because there were just so many red jerseys running at them.”
With five minutes to go in the second quarter, things looked promising for Goochland as senior quarterback C.J. Towles took a 3-yard keeper to tally his second touchdown and open a 14-12 lead. But for the second time in the half, Meridian needed just one snap for running back Graham Felgar to answer.
“He’s a pretty dynamic player, obviously,” said Meridian coach Adam Amerine of his senior, who racked up 245 yards and two scores on eight first-half rushes. “He tweaked his hamstring in our week 10 game so last week he didn’t even touch the ball. He recovered and came out and played as well as we’ve seen all year.”
After Goochland’s next series ended with a punt, Meridian proceeded to bookend halftime with methodical touchdown drives. Heading into the break, the Mustangs marched 85 yards in nine plays, with Felgar hauling in a 15-yard pass from senior quarterback Evans Rice in the endzone. After receiving the third-quarter kickoff, Meridian used 14 plays to cover 70 yards and drain seven and a half minutes off the clock before Rice powered in on a 1-yard sneak.
“They had a great offensive plan that second half,” Fruth said. “They came out and drove it all the way down. That was a backbreaker.”
Goochland’s fate was sealed moments later when who-else-but-Felgar outwrestled Towles’s target receiver on a third-down pass and took it 53 yards for a pick-six. Now with three minutes left in the third, four straight touchdowns had Meridian in control 40-14.
“We know [Goochland]’s an offense loaded with weapons and we repped all their formations this week,” said Amerine. “We thought we could play bend-but-don’t-break and make them earn their yards and we did a good job tonight. Obviously, winning the turnover battle is huge this time of year.”
Goochland stopped the four-touchdown onslaught with a five-play, 53-yard drive capped by Towles’ third rushing score of the game. However, the Bulldogs could not add any more points in the fourth quarter, and Meridian was content to pound it on the ground and keep the clock running.
Goochland seized early momentum when Meridian snapped to up-man George Papadopoulos in punt formation on fourth-and-5 and the Bulldogs forced him out of bounds two yards shy of the line to gain. Towles and company drove 62 yards in nine plays, with Towles converting a third-and-long with a 21 pass to Jason Woodson before he cruised in from 3 yards for a 7-0 lead with 2:30 left in the first quarter. However, Felgar took the handoff on the Mustangs’ next snap and raced 80 yards for six.
“Being a double-wing offense, normally we grind the ball three yards, three yards, three yards, but this year we’ve been able to get the big play and it carried over into tonight,” said Amerine, as the Mustangs’ offense had 10 rushes go for double-digit yardage in the game. “We weren’t expecting that; we thought it would be a boxing match, punch for punch, but the big plays were there for us tonight.”
Despite the very cold and windy conditions, it seemed a shootout might unfold after Omarion Quarles returned the ensuing kickoff to the Meridian 37, but Towles promptly fumbled on his first-down keeper. The Mustangs’ offense took 11 plays, spanning the quarter change, before cashing in on senior Griffin Harrison’s 9-yard run. After Meridian’s first PAT attempt clanged off the upright, a failed two-point run left the score 12-7 with 9:20 left in the second.
“For us to get stops tonight was going to be really hard, and we couldn’t turn the ball over,” said Fruth. “That was going to be the dealbreaker. As soon as we did that, they scored, and then they turned around and started eating clock.”
Trouble mounted for Goochland as Papadopoulos picked off Towles on the next play, marking back-to-back first-play turnovers by the offense. However, the defense responded by recovering a fumble to halt the Mustangs after they crossed the 35. For the Bulldogs to turn this lone takeaway into seven points, Towles first hit senior receiver Eyan Pace for an 11-yard pickup on third down near midfield. Towles then broke a keeper for 23 yards into the redzone, and Quarles ran for nine yards before Towles grabbed a brief, final lead for Goochland.
Towles finished out his high school career with 88 yards on 21 rushes and 98 yards through the air, completing 9-of-17 passes. Quarles added 50 yards on four carries and senior Gabe Liptak ran five times for 25 yards. Pace caught three passes for 32 yards. The Bulldogs finished with 261 yards of offense, but had only 91 in the second half.
Goochland finishes the season 6-6 and will have re-tool in the offseason for another run in the Jefferson District with 20 seniors departing the roster.
“It was a good experience for us because I think we walked in [to the playoffs] having played much stiffer competition than we had the last couple years,” said Fruth. “Next year will be a good challenge. We’re going to graduate a bunch of kids who’ve done a lot for us. You don’t replace a C.J. Towles, a De’Andre Robinson. We’re going to have to get creative with how we approach things.”
Felgar led Meridian with 255 yards on 10 rushes and also caught three passes for 42 yards. Harrison carried 17 times for 76 yards and caught one pass for 5. Papadopoulos added 56 yards on eight attempts. Rice completed 4-of-7 passes for 47 yards and added 19 yards on the ground.
Meridian (10-2) hosts Brentsville District (10-2) next week in a Northwestern District rematch for the Region 3B championship.