After giving up yards — and points — in chunks the previous five weeks, Jhamel Leonard and the rest of the Bulldogs’ veteran unit on that side of the ball finally came through in a big way against the Mariners. Leonard’s sixth interception of the season and subsequent second return for a touchdown highlighted his team’s 68-12 win, a contest that was never in doubt after an early score.
St. Pauls forced five turnovers, returned two kickoffs for touchdowns and scored on 5-of-6 first-quarter possessions en route to its fifth straight win.
“We all take it personal on defense and we wanted to make a statement,” Leonard said. “We know we could play better than we have been. So we did it.”
The Bulldogs (5-1) added pregame and post-touchdown fireworks for the first time this season prior to their matchup with the Mariners and by the end of the first quarter, the pyrotechnics in the south end zone were already dwindling.
Malik Livingston took the opening kickoff 88 yards to the house, quarterback Kane Banner scored on his first carry of the game and Deion Gilchrist was on the receiving end of a 39-yard touchdown on Banner’s first pass from the shotgun. At times, St. Pauls’ final non-conference affair looked more like a glorified scrimmage against a defense that had little answers for the hurry-up spread.
Mixing the run and pass, the Bulldogs dominated the opening half averaging more than 10 yards per play and scoring 48 points.
Senior running back Shawn Williams became Robeson County’s first 1,000-yard rusher on his fourth carry, a 27-yard burst around the right end. Two plays later, Williams scored his 13th touchdown of the season for a 32-6 lead at the end of the first quarter. He added another score on a 61-yard scamper in the third and finished with 164 yards on 15 carries.
“I’m trying to get that 2,000 (yards),” Williams said. “We’re all trying to get better at what we’re doing. We aren’t done yet.”
St. Pauls’ defense gave up two early scores, but only allowed a handful of first downs the rest of the way. The Bulldogs managed a season-high 6.5 sacks and intercepted quarterback Tiger Harris three times. Coming in, St. Pauls had allowed — on average — 38.2 points per game and had gaping holes in its secondary. The victory was the Bulldogs’ fourth this season by at least three touchdowns.
Banner completed his first four throws and threw two well-placed touchdown passes to Deion Gilchrist. His only mistake was a second-quarter interception that St. Pauls wideout Javon Crawford juggled in the air into a defender’s arms.
“Our offense could make the defense relax at times and that may tend to happen,” St. Pauls coach Trey Sasser said. “But the defense needs to play hard anytime they’re on the field. They’re going to be the reason, ultimately, whether we win or lose.”
Rivalry game awaits
Midway through the third quarter when officials moved to a running clock, St. Pauls’ starting lineup shifted its focus to next week’s conference opener at Red Springs, a matchup that features both of the county’s top scoring offenses and highlights some of the region’s best individual players.
It’ll be up to the Bulldogs’ defense, says Sasser, to slow down Blake Greene and the Red Devils’ Air Raid attack. Greene leads the county in passing yards, passing touchdowns and total yards from scrimmage. Red Springs has stumbled to blowout losses the last two games, pushing the Red Devils out of the 1A Top 10.
“The intensity is going to go up because of the opponent,” Sasser said. “Plus the rivalry factor always gets our boys fired up. We’ve got a lot of things to improve on still, but we just need to get better and work on what we do.”
For St. Pauls’ 18-member senior class, it’ll mark the long-awaited opportunity at payback following last year’s embarrassing 57-6 loss at home, one of the largest margins of victory ever in the otherwise competitive rivalry series.
“We haven’t forgot about that,” Williams said. “Revenge. That’s all we’re thinking about.”