TWIN CITY — What started as a potential barnburner at Rountree Stadium ended like so many other contests over the last decade. Emanuel County Institute outdueled Charlton County Friday night by a count of 49-25 to win their Class A Public quarterfinal matchup.
Nearly 300 yards of passing by Charlton County quarterback A.J. Bell was impressive, but it was also overmatched by a four-headed ECI rushing attack that topped the 400-yard mark.
Regardles of whether or not the third-seeded Bulldogs (11-1) will have to hit the road next week, they should feel right at home at the far reaches of the state playoff bracket. ECI advances to the semifinals for the sixth time in the last 11 seasons and is still in the running for a fourth state championship.
“Every Friday night, I know these guys will show up,” ECI coach Chris Kearson said. “Maybe we’ve had some teams that people said were better, but I don’t think we’ve ever had a team that plays harder than these guys do every week.”
The Bulldogs were tested throughout the game as Charlton County (10-3) saw gunslinging quarterback A.J. Bell have a huge night in his final career game. In addition to the damage hid did through the air, Bell legged out a 39-yard touchdown scramble, but the ECI defense did just enough to slow the Indian attack.
Meanwhile, the Bulldog offense set a pace that the visitors from Folkston couldn’t match.
Leading 28-19 coming out of halftime, ECI got a solid kickoff return to its own 42. The Bulldogs ran between the tackles on each of the next nine plays, culminating with Eric Dixon slicing in from 6 yards out to start to put the game out of reach.
Before the ECI offense hit its stride, a pair of turnovers helped Charlton County stay in the game.
The Bulldog defense held on the game’s opening drive, only to see the offense fumble away its first possession. A deep pass connection from Bell to Saquon Clark set up a Raquan Anderson 4 yard touchdown run for an early 7-0 Indian lead.
Bobby McNear evened the score with a 4 yard touchdown run and ECI took its first lead on a 17 yard romp by Eric Dixon early in the second quarter. But when ECI looked to take control after another defensive stand, McNear saw a completed pass ripped out of his hands. Two plays later, Bell turned a broken play into a wild scramble that went for a 39 yard touchdown run.
A bad snap kept the ECI lead at 14-13.
“We kept our composure,” Kearson said. “We know that we have a stable of guys who are going to run it hard for us. Defensively, I thought we did a good job of hanging with them.
“Their strengths were pointed at some of our weaknesses and they have some guys that it’s just tough for us to run with. But we did a good job of getting some pressure on the quarterback and keeping guys in front of us and our offense kept putting points on the board.”
Following the Bulldogs’ second turnover, little got in the way of the ECI attack. Ty Carswell made it 21-13 with an 8 yard scoring run. The Indians answered with 2:39 to go in the first half when Bell hit Clark on a 17 yard dart, but ECI raced down the field and Dazhun Steele took a counter trap through a wide open hole for a 6 yard scoring run.
Bell drove his offense down the field again, only to see a hail mary attempt find the hands of Steele to send the Bulldogs into the half with a lead that they quickly built up over the final two quarters.
Dixon scored his third touchdown of the night on a 1 yard plunge on the second play of the fourth quarter to officially put to bed any hope of a Charlton County comeback. The Bulldogs’ grinding rushing attack ran down most of the fourth quarter clock, but the Indians were afforded a parting gift before loading up the busses. On the final play of the night, Bell found Clark on a quick slant. Clark slipped a pair of tackles, raced to the sideline and then turned the corner for a 90 yard touchdown as time expired.
That might not have been the Bulldogs’ ideal way of ending Friday night, but they’ll gladly trade in a touchdown allowed this week for the opportunity to play again next week.
The location of the Bulldogs’ semifinal game depends on the result of Friday night’s matchup between Irwin County and Macon County. ECI would get to host seventh-seeded Macon County, but would have to hit the road if second-seeded Irwin prevails.