CLEMSON, S.C. -
Early in the fourth quarter of the South Carolina 4A Division I state title contest Saturday between Byrnes (Duncan, S.C.)
and Gaffney (S.C.)
, Byrnes' defensive line had a chance to make a difference.Melvin Armstrong
Facing a fourth-and-1 attempt by the Indians at the Byrnes 43-yard line, Armstrong stopped Gaffney quarterback Joey Copeland
, wrestled the ball away and raced 57 yards for a two-touchdown lead and what would prove to be the game-deciding touchdown in the Rebels' 31-24 victory.
"All I saw was that he (Copeland) was trying to stretch with the ball, and I just reached in there and took it," Armstrong said. "When I didn't hear a whistle right away, I knew I had the speed to take it to the end zone."
Armstrong's play was perhaps the biggest in a game full of highlights for the Rebels' "Strike Force" defense. Byrnes held Gaffney 25 points below its season scoring average, allowed the Indians just 45 rushing yards on 36 attempts, and forced four turnovers in the game, two of which were returned for touchdowns.
Though Gaffney was able to run 80 plays and churn out more than 400 offensive yards, the bend-but-don't-break Rebels made just enough plays to secure the victory.
"I don't think there's a guy out there on the field who didn't play his best," Byrnes coach Chris Miller said. "We said that everybody had a job to do, they had to do it today, and had to do it for four quarters. I think they did it today."
Gaffney set the tone early, as the Indians held the Rebels to a three-and-out to start the game, partially blocked a punt and took the ensuing drive 44 yards in 11 plays. That drive was capped by Copeland's 10-yard touchdown toss to C.J. Miller
, his fifth completion on the drive.
The Indians led 7-0, and looked to be in even better shape when they forced another quick punt. However, Byrnes capitalized on its first turnover, a fumble recovery by Brandon Bailey
, to set up an answering score.
Taking over at the Gaffney 44-yard line, the Rebels appeared to be stopped at the 32 as Kaleb Patterson trotted out for a field goal attempt. Patterson took off with a fake instead, converting the first down and giving the Rebels new life at the 17. Quarterback Shuler Bentley
then found Akia Booker
from 15 yards out, knotting the score at 7-7 late in the first quarter.
Byrnes' defense kept the pressure on, forcing another Gaffney punt and briefly sending standout receiver Quinshad Davis
to the sidelines after a hard collision as the quarter wound down.
The Rebels got on the scoreboard again courtesy of the defense on the first play of the second quarter, as a Copeland pass was intercepted by Skip Barnes
and returned 29 yards for a score to give Byrnes a 14-7 lead.
"We made a banjo (audible) call," Barnes said of the play. "We knew they were about to try something. I saw the read, and when I looked, the ball was coming to me and I just took off. I don't think he ever saw me. The ball just came right to me. To score in the state championship, my last time on the field for Byrnes High School, it feels great."
Gaffney answered with a 13-play, 65-yard drive capped by Copeland's 5-yard score to tie it at 14, but Byrnes converted a 22-yard Patterson field goal with 14 seconds to play before the half to take a 17-14 lead at the break.
Gaffney knotted the score at 17 on a 32-yard field goal from Victor Ramirez
early in the third quarter, but Byrnes' best offensive drive of the game, a nine-play, 65-yard march, ended with a 4-yard run by Shakeem Wharton
to give the Rebels a 24-17 lead and set the stage for Armstrong's big play.
Gaffney cut the deficit to 31-24 on a 54-yard pass from Copeland to Davis. The Indians had two late possessions to try to tie, but the Byrnes defense stiffened on both occasions. The unit sacked Copeland four times down the stretch and forced five incompletions in the final seven plays of the contest.
Copeland finished 26-for-44 with two interceptions and two touchdowns. Davis was his main target, catching eight balls for 184 yards and a touchdown. Miller led the Indians on the ground with 13 carries for 30 yards.
Bentley was 13-for-21 for 126 yards and a touchdown for the Rebels. Booker caught five balls for 49 yards and a score, and Wharton rushed for 100 yards and a touchdown on 26 carries to lead Byrnes.
The Indians, who were 14-0 coming into the game, had been the higher-ranked and heavily favored team all season, including in an earlier 35-13 defeat of Byrnes. Gaffney head coach Dan Jones said the Indians simply didn't execute well enough on either side of the ball to win this time.
"The turnovers were critical," Jones said. "When you have a touchdown run back for an interception, when you have a first down on a quarterback sneak and they end up with a touchdown, certainly to give a team as good as Byrnes 14 points, it hurts. We moved the ball. We scored points, we just didn't stop them from scoring. Twenty-four is enough to win the game, but you can't give up points and expect to win."
Jones said the loss was especially stinging for his senior players, who had their dream of an undefeated season end.
"They wanted this one really badly," he said. "They were 14-0, they beat a really good Dorman team, a really good Boiling Springs team, and were hoping to beat a really good Byrnes team. That's how it is when you play in our region. Those are the teams you'll end up playing against, because you know those teams are always among the best in the state."
Byrnes avenged a regular-season loss in the state title game for the second straight time. Despite two early losses, the Rebels (13-2) regrouped under a sophomore quarterback and were playing their best football as the playoffs began.
The win marked the eighth title in the past 10 seasons for Byrnes.
Miller had a message after the game for those who doubted Byrnes early in the season and for those who proclaimed this season to be the end of what Byrnes fans call the "Rebel Empire".
"We hung on against a great football team," he said. "We're just the Rebels. Everybody from Gaffney says there's no Empire. There's an Empire over here at Byrnes. They were bigger, faster and stronger, but our kids have big hearts, and they played a great, fantastic football game for four quarters. If you didn't get your money's worth today, you need to go find another sport."Byrnes 7 10 7 7 31Gaffney 7 7 3 7 241stGaffney - C.J. Miller 11 pass from Joey Copeland (Victor Ramirez kick)Byrnes - Akia Booker 15 pass from Shuler Bentley (Kaleb Patterson kick)2ndByrnes - Skip Barnes 31 interception return (Patterson kick)Gaffney - Copeland 5 run (Ramirez kick)Byrnes - Patterson 22 field goal3rdGaffney - Ramirez 32 field goalByrnes - Shakeem Wharton 4 run (Patterson kick)4thByrnes - Melvin Armstrong 57 fumble return (Patterson kick)Gaffney - Quinshad Davis 54 pass from Copeland (Ramirez kick)