KINGSPORT — Malik McGue shouldered the load and seemed to streak through time Friday night at J. Fred Johnson Stadium.
McGue, who popped his shoulder out of place in defensive drills Wednesday, rushed for touchdowns of 27 and 19 yards in the final 1:50 to lift Science Hill to a 35-24 defeat of Dobyns-Bennett.
The victory gave Science Hill (6-0, 8-2) a Big Seven Conference title, a home playoff game and, last but not least, its first win against the Indians since 1994. Dobyns-Bennett had beaten Science Hill 19 straight times.
Turning the tables, Science Hill scored 21 points in the final 5:17 after D-B had taken a 24-14 lead late in the third quarter. Last year, the Indians scored 18 unanswered points to beat Science Hill after entering the fourth quarter trailing, 34-19.
“It doesn’t get much better than this,” McGue said. “We were like warriors tonight. We didn’t quit close to the end. That was the focus of the whole week of practice. ... We had faith the whole game, and we finished it out.”
D-B (5-1, 6-4) was a perhaps a first down from finishing it a couple of times. The Indians led 24-14 and had the ball at the Science Hill 29-yard line with 6:17 left, but the Hilltoppers’ Trey Sutton made a crucial fourth-and-five stop to give Science Hill possession at its 38-yard line with 6:00 left.
Two plays later, Chance Pierce (17 carries, 148 yards) avoided several would-be tacklers on a third-and-four carry and tight-roped the left sideline for a 35-yard gain to the D-B 26. McGue then threw a 26-yard TD pass to Mikey White, and Alex Rinella’s PAT made it 24-21 with 5:17 left. McGue lofted the ball up toward the front right pylon and the 6-foot-2 White made a fairly difficult catch look rather easy while contending with good coverage on the well-thrown pass.
The Indians offense could’ve delivered the knockout punch on the ensuing drive with a first down. The Hilltoppers were down to two timeouts. But D-B fumbled on a third-and-one run that appeared to be headed for a loss anyway. The Indians recovered, but were forced to punt.
“We had to make one more play,” D-B coach Graham Clark said, “whether it was offensively or defensively, and we didn’t get it made. . ... Somebody’s got to make a play or I’ve got to make a better call. I probably got too conservative down the stretch.”
The Hilltoppers got the ball back at their 38 with 2:57 remaining after McGue made a fair catch. Two plays later, on third-and-four, McGue threw a 29-yard play-action pass to Marcus Patton across the middle. McGue, the shifty junior, scored on a 27-yard run on the next play, and Rinella’s PAT gave the ‘Toppers a 28-24 lead with 1:50 to go.
On the TD, McGue dashed toward the same pylon where he’d connected with White less than four minutes earlier, then patiently gained the final five or six yards behind the downfield blocking of White.
“Mikey, he made a great block,” McGue said. “He played a great game -- defense and offense. ... He had that good touchdown (catch). Like I told you before, he’s a very athletic dude with good size who’ll go up and get the ball whenever he needs to.”
McGue’s final score, from 19 yards with 1:15 remaining, came on a second-and-12 and Science Hill needing just one more first down to run out the clock. It was an epic finish for a player whose status was iffy Thursday.
“He played through a lot of pain today, just great,” Carter said through an appreciative smile that described much more than words can. “Yeah, we didn’t even know if he was gonna play yesterday. ... He did (throw well), but he was hurting.”
Adrenaline’s quite the tonic. McGue even went in on defense in the fourth quarter.
“I couldn’t feel it (pain) tonight,” McGue said. “I mean, there was adrenaline pumping through -- there was too much for this game. In the fourth quarter, I told coach, put me in there (on defense, too). I don’t care how bad I’m hurt, I’m gonna finish this game out.”
McGue rushed 12 times for 88 yards and the two TDs, and was 10-of-20 passing for 131 yards and two TDs.
“Yeah, doggone it, he just makes plays, you know,” Clark said. “He finds ways to make plays. ... We fought like crazy; kept him bottled up for most of the night.”
McGue’s 9-yard pass to Elijah Mathes on third-and-goal gave Science Hill a 7-0 lead with 2:54 left in the first quarter. The ‘Toppers converted a fourth-and-two from their 48 on the drive by shifting in punt formation out of a time and getting D-B to jump offsides.
D-B did the same thing to Science Hill last season on its game-winning drive.
The Indians bounced back from Mathes score, and two 1-yard quarterback sneaks in the final 4:25 of the first half, by Josh Holt and Skylar East, gave them a 14-7 halftime lead.
Dobyns-Bennett got the ball to open the second half and Zach Casey picked up where he’d left off at intermission, getting loose for a 52-yard run which set up a 30-yard Landon Salyers field goal that made the score 17-7 with 8:25 left in the third quarter. Casey rushed for 157 yards on 27 carries.
“They had a good game plan,” Carter said. “I thought Casey just ran the ball unbelievably.”
Carter was wise to keep the Hilltopper offense balanced after getting down double digits in the third quarter. Pierce rushed for 96 of his 148 after D-B took the 10-point lead on Salyers’ field goal.
“Well, we felt like we had something and we knew needed to run the ball and establish the run,” Carter said. “And we were able to at the end.”
Pierce scored on a 4-yard run to get the Hilltoppers within 17-14 with 2:45 left in the third, but Holt connected with 6-foot-4 D.J. Jones for a 71-yard TD on a play-action pass on the ensuing play from scrimmage.
Science Hill was forced to punt on the following drive. D-B took over at its 26 with 1:05 left in the third quarter, and proceeded to drive to the Science Hill 29 while exhausting nearly seven minutes of clock to set up a fourth-and-five. The Streak loomed large.
But that’s when Sutton came up with his most critical tackle behind the line of scrimmage.
“We knew we didn’t have much time,” Carter said. “We made a couple of big pass plays and Malik made some good runs and Chance made some good (runs).
“Getting them stopped there, and getting that big fourth-down play to get us going was big. And then we moved with a sense or urgency. Just outstanding.”
White had five receptions for 72 yards and an interception. Science Hill cornerback Brandon Westmoreland also had an interception on a deep pass. Sutton had nine tackles, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and a sack.
“He did a great job for us,” Carter said. “I thought our offensive line played well (and) Chance, Malik and I thought Mikey had a great night. And then (linebacker) Gad Nagba, too.”
Nagba had multiple tackles for loss and a rib-rattling quarterback hurry on a third-and-13 incompletion from the D-B 16 with some 100 seconds remaining. McGue appeared to get his fingertips on the following fourth-down desperation pass into a crowd near midfield, and two plays later, his 19-yard TD put the icing on the cake.
Indeed, ending the streak was reason to party, as Science Hill’s fans stormed the field.
“It’s a relief, because I can focus more on these kids,” Carter said. “Sometimes that’s all you think about for 365 days, and you can focus more on other things (now).”
The losing streak was a distraction. If unaddressed, it was the elephant in the room, and when discussed, it became a monkey on the back.
“Our goal was to get over this hump,” McGue said, “and we got over it this year.”
Clark gave the improbable 19-game wins streak one final salute, then commended his counterparts.
“Pretty unbelievable, because we’ve played some great Science Hill teams,” Clark said. “This is an outstanding Science Hill team. They deserve all the credit. I probably got outcoached and we probably got outplayed toward the end.”
There was some talk these teams could meet again next week. But most seemed to speculate that Science Hill will host Farragut and D-B will probably play Morristown East on Friday. The TSSAA playoff pairings will be set by 4 p.m. today.