Chapman led Clinton longer and more often than any other team this season, but the result was the same Friday night as it had been in a dozen other Red Devil victories.
Clinton scored three touchdowns in the final seven minutes of the second quarter to overcome its second deficit of the game and steal the momentum the Panthers had gained during an inspired first quarter en route to a 49-27 Class 3A state playoff victory over former region rival Chapman Friday night at Wilder Stadium.
With the victory, the No. 3-ranked Red Devils (13-0) advance to this coming Friday’s Upper State championship game at Powdersville. Powdersville (12-1) upset top-ranked and two-time defending Class 3A state champion Daniel 36-35, scoring a touchdown and a go-ahead 2-point conversion with 8 seconds left in the game.
The Red Devils’ go-ahead touchdown came on the third of Bryson James’ four touchdown runs on the night, a 25-yard run that gave Clinton a 19-14 lead with 4:33 left in the second quarter.
After falling behind 7-0 on a 75-yard touchdown pass from Coleman Gray to Shawn Cunningham with 2:42 left in the first quarter and then 14-7 on Devin Roe’s 62-yard reception from Gray off of a deflection in the end zone, Clinton’s vaunted rushing game came to life behind James and Jayden Robinson.
James tied the game at 7-7 on an 8-yard run with 11:42 left in the second quarter and then scored on a 10-yard run, diving over the goal line and over Chapman defenders with 6:55 left to cut the lead to 14-13 after Lucas Kuykendall’s kick sailed wide.
The Red Devils stretched their lead to 26-14 before halftime on Robinson’s 77-yard run. Robinson appeared to be down on the visitor’s sideline after a short gain, but the junior running back somehow kept his balance and came out of a small scrum and scampered untouched to put Clinton ahead 26-14 with 1:50 left in the half.
James, Robinson and Jishun Copeland, who scored touchdowns on runs of 13 and 94 yards in the third quarter to extend Clinton’s lead to 39-14, each ran for more than 100 yards in the game as the Red Devils finished with 595 yards of total offense and matched their scoring total in a 49-19 regular-season win over the Panthers.
“Our offense kept grounding and kept pounding that rock,” said Clinton head coach Corey Fountain. “We got some cracks in the rock, and then we broke the rock. Our defense played good, and we got a little bit of momentum going into the second half and into halftime. I thought our guys did a great job. I’m proud of our coaches and proud of our players.”
Copeland’s 13-yard run was set up by Zay Johnson’s interception of a Gray pass, while the 94-yard run up the middle followed a downed Chapman punt inside the Red Devils’ 10.
James, a finalist for South Carolina’s Mr. Football Award, ran for 151 yards on 24 carries, while Robinson added 146 yards on eight rushes and Copeland had 132 yards on 10 attempts.
After giving up two big pass plays, Clinton’s defense stiffened until Cunningham scored his second touchdown of the game on a 61-yard run with 10:11 left in the game, which cut what had become an insurmountable Red Devils lead to 46-21.
Following a Kuykendall 24-yard field goal, Cunningham scored his third touchdown on a 23-yard pass from Gray, who completed 12 of 17 passes for 195 yards with three touchdowns and the interception.
While the Panthers (8-5) threw the ball more, Clinton quarterback Bryce Young overcame a slow start to help open up the Red Devils’ running game with his arm. Young overshot Jishun Copeland twice and Robinson once in the first quarter before completing his final four pass attempts on the night.
“(Young) had a lot of grit and a lot of moxie about him tonight, and he kept doing what we asked him to do,” Fountain said.
Young completed 4 of 7 passes for 135 yards, and two of those completions – one to Robinson and one to Kadon Crawford – directly set up Clinton touchdowns.
Forced to respect Clinton’s passing game, the Panthers’ defense then struggled to contain the Red Devils’ ground attack, which accounted for 460 yards rushing.