Darlington almost pulls off the improbable, fall short to Marlboro County
By Drake Horton, Contributing Writer
This Darlington team is different, and it’s not just because of the record or the outcome of this game.
It, instead, is the heart, grit and pure determination to not quit that separates this team from the other Darlington football teams over the last four years.
Yes, Darlington lost 56-43 to the Marlboro County Bulldogs, yes it “spoiled” homecoming, but the Falcons gained more from this loss than what most teams gain from victories.
Down 42-14 with 6:21 left in the third quarter it looked like the game was over for Darlington.
The Falcon sideline had a dejected appearance, all the momentum was on the Bulldogs side and Darlington did not seem to have one single answer for anything Marlboro County was doing offensively or defensively.
Then, out of nowhere, it was like a light switch came on.
“Our guys battled so hard,” Darlington head coach John Jones said after the game. “They (his players) laid their souls on the line tonight, they played so hard they never quit.”
Following the touchdown that put the Bulldogs up 42-14 Darlington put together a long drive that was capped off by quarterback Frankie Johnson’s four-yard touchdown run, ending what had been 28 unanswered points by Marlboro County.
But to get a rally started the Falcons desperately needed their defense to get a stop and outside of the Bulldogs opening drive it had not been able to get one.
After not forcing one single punt for the entire game, Darlington followed its first touchdown of the second half by forcing Marlboro County to punt with nine seconds left in the third quarter.
That punt was like a shot of adrenaline for the Falcons as Darlington and Frankie engineered another scoring drive with Frankie scoring on a one-yard run, cutting what was once a 28-point lead to just a 14-point lead.
“During halftime coach just told us to come out and play like we normally play,” Frankie said, elaborating on the change of play of the Falcons. “We were playing Marlboro’s game the whole first half, he said just come out and play Darlington football and we would cut the lead down and we did that.”
And then, with momentum starting to come back to Darlington’s side, Jones decided to go against the grain. He reached into his bag of tricks and Darlington executed one of the best performed and best timed onside kicks in recent memory.
With the ball back in its possession after recovering the onside kick, Darlington capitalized with running back Thomas Wheeler rumbling his way into the end zone for the three-yard touchdown, his second of the game and just like that what was once a four possession game was now just one and there was still 8:08 left to play in the fourth quarter.
It was at that point that Marlboro County changed its entire game plan and Darlington struggled to stop it.
The Bulldogs, who are known as a passing team, had been running with some success against the Falcons and with their lead shrinking and time on their side Marlboro County did what it needed to do, run the ball and run the ball is what they did.
Following Darlington’s drive that cut Marlboro County’s lead to 42-36, head coach Dean Boyd switched things up and the Bulldogs ran the “wildcat” package for the rest of the night and the Falcons never could find a way to stop it.
The “wildcat” package is basically where the running back takes the direct snap and runs while the quarterback splits out to block. The Bulldogs ran that formation on every play for the rest of the game starting at the 8:07 mark and they ran it to absolute perfection.
Marlboro County finally answered Falcons three straight touchdowns, scoring with 4:53 left to increase its lead back to 12 points and most thought that score was the final dagger for Darlington.
Once again, however, that was not the case. Down 12 with less than five minutes to play the Falcons needed a quick score if they were going to give themselves a chance and a quick score is what they got.
Exactly 21 seconds later Frankie connected with Elmo Johnson for a 70-yard touchdown reception and once again the game was back to just a one possession game as the Bulldogs led by just five.
“I was trying to make a big play,” Elmo, who finished the night as the Falcons leading receiver with 128 yards, said. “I just told Frankie to lob it up, throw it as far as you can and I’ll go get it.”
But Marlboro County’s run game was just too much and the Bulldogs marched down the field and scored with 1:22 left in the game and by then it was too late for Darlington complete the comeback.
But how did this game start and how did get so out hand before Darlington almost completed, potentially, the best comeback in its programs history?
Darlington started this game impressively jumping out to a 7-0 lead while forcing a turnover on downs with the Bulldogs on the Falcons nine-yard line. For the entire first quarter and half of the second quarter the Falcons went blow for blow with the Bulldogs as both team traded touchdowns.
Marlboro County had just gone up 21-14 and Darlington was driving when some miscommunication between Frankie and the center allowed the Bulldogs to recover a mistimed snap. The Bulldogs quickly capitalized, scoring a touchdown and increasing their lead to 28-14.
And like that it was like every bit of energy that the Falcons had gained from the opening kickoff had been sucked out of the air in just a matter of seconds.
Darlington had one more shot to score in the second quarter, but intentional grounding and a false start when trying to spike the ball to stop the clock pushed the Falcons back, crippling any chance to score.
Frankie had a career night for the Falcons, carrying the ball 41 times for 229 yards rushing and three rushing touchdowns all while completing 11-21 passes for 167 yards through the air with a touchdown and interception.
Bryson Allen finished the night as the Falcons leading tackler with 12 tackles.
Outside of the scoreboard Darlington led in some of the most important stats, running 87 offensive plays compared to the Bulldogs 56, out gaining Marlboro County 544 to 520 in total yards and converting 40 first downs while the Bulldogs only converted 25.
The major stat that hurt Darlington in the game was its two turnovers to the Bulldogs one.
The Hartsville Red Foxes stayed undefeated, beating the Lakewood Gators 54-0 while Lamar dominated Great Falls winning 53-6.