ST. PAULS — Coming into Friday night’s game against West Bladen, St. Pauls football coach Ernest King wanted to see his squad come out and jump on the Knights early.
With 21 first-quarter points, the Bulldogs granted their coach’s request en route to a 30-7 home win, snapping a two-game losing streak to West Bladen.
“We played hard in the second half last week against East Bladen and we wanted to carry that over to this game,” King said. “I think we did that. I told our guys we can’t be content.”
Trailing 7-6 midway through the first quarter, St. Pauls (2-2) reeled off 24 unanswered points to put the Knights (2-2) away in an impressive first half for the offense.
Quarterback Noah Wheeler and running back Chris Graham paced the Bulldogs. Wheeler accounted for three touchdowns, using his legs and arm to keep the Knights’ defense off balance throughout the night. Weaving his way through defenders, Wheeler gave St. Pauls the lead for good on a 44-yard run with 5:59 left in the first quarter.
He rushed for 71 yards and threw for 146, with his only mistakes coming on a pair of interceptions.
Graham finished with 111 yards on 23 carries, kicking off the scoring with a 14-yard run in the first quarter to put the Bulldogs up 6-0. West Bladen answered with a 22-yard run by B.J. Drake to take a 7-6 lead, but would be held scoreless the rest of the way.
“It all starts with them,” King said of the duo. “They got it going tonight, early and often. In the fourth quarter, Chris churned up a bunch of yards and killed the clock for us.”
Michael Barnes and Dakota Oxendine gave the Bulldogs some production in the passing game, with each hauling in a touchdown pass in the first half. Barnes scored on a 4-yard throw, with Oxendine reeling in a 53-yarder to put St. Pauls up 30-7 with 43 seconds left in the second quarter.
“We told Mike, he’s a 6’5 guy, most of our guys in the system have done a great job at that size,” King said. “When we need a first down, we have to be able to go to him.”
Barnes finished with a game-best four receptions for 32 yards.
The offense got the glory for producing points, but it was the defense and special teams that helped the Bulldogs finish with four takeaways. Kicker Anthony Espinosa also nailed a 31-yard field goal in the first half.
Keyed by an onside kick to start the game, St. Pauls jumped on three fumbles and D.J. Henson snagged an interception. The Bulldogs held West Bladen to 54 yards of total offense.
“The biggest thing is executing,” King said. “After that first score, we made the adjustments. There are a lot of things we work on as far as fake punts, onside kicks and stuff. I’m comfortable going to those at any time.”
Chris Ray Jr. finished with four tackles and a fumble recovery, with Henson also collecting four tackles to go with his interception. Christian Dunn tallied three tackles and Tre King finished with four assists for the dominant St. Pauls defense.
“Our defense was flying around,” King said. “Those guys turn around and set the tone up front. They did a great job. I commend my coaching staff because they do a great job working hard to get these guys better.”
Riding the momentum of a blowout, the Bulldogs will have this week off in preparation for a battle at Red Springs (2-1) in two weeks.
For King, it’s not about what the Red Devils do, it’s about his Bulldogs continuing to show progress each day.
“We have to execute our game plan,” he said. “Defense has to play with the same intensity. If we get better, we’ll let the scoreboard take care of itself.”
Rodd Baxley can be reached at 910-416-5182. Follow him on Twitter @RoddBaxley.