SPORTS RECAP: Under the hammer – Hard-hitting Trojans control front lines, knock out Irish in decisive second-round win

The Courier Herald – December 8, 2020

    After being denied last year’s AA championship by Dublin in the state finals, Brooks County came into its second-round rematch with the Irish in the Shamrock Bowl looking to prove a point. 
   The Trojans (12-1, 5-1 region 2-A) firmly established their case as Class A’s new favorite to win it all with a convincing 41-7 victory, in a rout of proportions not often or recently seen against the Irish at home in the playoffs. They used their trademark sledgehammer as a gavel to pronounce an end to Dublin’s playoff run – and hopes of a repeat – while also gaining a bit of vindication after the Irish win a year ago that ended theirs. 
   “We lost the state championship to these guys, and did not want to lose two years in a row,” Brooks County head coach Maurice Freeman said from just outside the door of a boisterous Trojan locker room. “Last time we played here won, we wanted to make that happen again.”
   Brooks County asserted iron-fisted control of the line of scrimmage from the game’s outset, and slowly wore Dublin down on both sides of the football on its way to a 14-0 halftime lead and three additional unanswered touchdowns in the third quarter. Dublin was held to a total of just 186 yards of offense, 163 rushing, and without a first down the entire opening quarter. 
   “We just flat got our hat handed to us tonight,” Dublin head coach Roger Holmes said. 
   Early opportunities for the Irish were limited to one good scoring threat midway through the second quarter, which ended with an interception in the end zone. 
   Dublin managed to slow down the Brooks County offense for most of the first half, after allowing a touchdown on the Trojans’ first possession. Following the turnover, and an 80-yard Brooks County scoring march in return, the Irish dodged a few bullets late in the second to keep the halftime margin at just two touchdowns. 
   But things came apart quickly in the second half, when Dublin’s opening possession of the third failed to get off the runway. Brooks County quickly moved in for the kill, turning around great field position on a short punt into a 43-yard scoring drive to take a 21-0 lead and further deflate already-discouraged spirits on the green and gold half of the stadium. 
   Morale faded completely away after another Dublin punt, when Brooks County added a pair of additional touchdowns before the close of the third to secure a running fourth-quarter clock. 
   Five of the six Trojan scores came on the ground, belonging to running backs Jamal Sanders (three touchdowns on a team-leading 126 yards) and Omari Arnold (two on 82). 
   Brooks County had 16 first downs, to Dublin's 12, and put up 410 total yards of offense. Possession time, after several big plays in the second half evened it up, heavily favored the Trojans in the early portion of the game. 
   Dublin also had just two conversions out of 12 opportunities on third and fourth downs. 
   “They dominated us up front on both sides of the football,” Holmes said. “I was concerned about that. But the reality of it was we never really got anything going. Had a couple little drives there we put together. But at the end of the day, we couldn’t sustain enough offensively give our defensive football team any type of field position or blow.” 
   Brooks County pounded the rock straight ahead on a physical opening drive that covered 68 yards to paydirt on Arnold's direct-snap carry from four-yards out. 
   Dublin adjusted, containing the run for most of the remainder of the half and putting the brakes on the Trojans’ next two drives, via punt and a turnover on downs just outside their own red zone. But the Irish offense couldn’t get much going, and failed to convert on its only substantive drive of the half following the stop.     
   They rattled off a series of big plays, picking up a new set of downs for the first time all night on a throw from Markelle Mitchell to a wide-open Kendell Wade, before a first trip over midfield on a 20-yard jet sweep by J.T. Wright. From there, Dublin turned to fullback Josh Isaac, who took them inside the Brooks County 10 on a series of bruising runs to set up a first-and-goal. 
   But that turned out to be the high point of the 70-yard advance. The Irish, on the next play, went to t he air off play-action, where Mitchell looked to the back side of the end zone for tight end Gabe Guyton after a speed-sweep fake to the left. Trojan freshman linebacker Amar Thomas backpedaled and leapt to pick off the floating pass and rob the potential game-tying touchdown. 
   Brooks County, from there, embarked on a slow, bleeding drive in the other direction, covering 80 yards, and took a two-touchdown lead on a 46-yard pass from Ni'Tavion Burrus to Willie Brown, who broke a tackle down the sideline and sprinted the rest of the way to the end zone. 
   Freeman said his team came in and established everything it wanted to early in the game. 
   “We were excited about playing,” he said. “We wanted to establish ourself early… We thought we had more foot speed than they had. We thought we had more big-play ability. And I thought we were a little faster on defense, we just had to prove it.”  
   The throws of Burrus were a huge difference maker in the early trajectory of the game. The Brooks County senior, who was a solid 11 of 15 for 159 yards and one touchdown, completed several passes to move the chains on their early scoring drive, and more down the stretch of the first half to maintain control of the football. 
   While most of his initial connections came on simple tosses to the perimeter in the screen and run-pass option game, the Trojan QB opened things up for the rest of his offense, against a Dublin D that had begun to stuff the run, with several downfield throws that were right on the money. 
   An underthrown deep ball into double coverage later in the second quarter, one of Burrus’ lone bad throws of the night, was intercepted by Dublin's J.T. Wright off a tip from Elijah Kates, on a takeaway that likely prevented the Trojans from grabbing a bigger lead even sooner.  
   The threat followed a sack by Kamari Blankumsee and Christian Edgerton that forced a punt from deep in Irish territory with plenty of time to go before the half. 
   The ensuing Dublin possession, with roughly a minute and a half to go, reached the minus-40, but stalled after another sack that forced the Irish to cut their losses and regroup at the break. 
   They found little to hang their hat on offensively in a watershed third quarter, where an increasingly-confident Brooks County front-7 continued to fly off the line and drive Irish blockers into the backfield. 
   Dublin largely failed in a bid to give its ground game some breathing room. The Irish couldn't put together much of a passing threat, though they did have several potentially big plays open up off play-action that they were unable to complete. The final resort was misdirection, which did spring some sizable gains on counters and reverses by the end of the second half, but not before Brooks County had already taken firm control. 
   Mitchell was three-of-six for just 23 yards, with the one interception. He rushed for Dublin's only touchdown in the fourth quarter, trucking a defender at the 5 on a 14-yard midline keeper that cut into Brooks County's 41-0 lead. 
   The Irish were led on the ground by Wright, who had 81 yards. 
   Dublin finishes its 2020 campaign with a 10-2 overall record. The Irish, after a season-opening loss at Dodge County, won their final nine in a row and won a third-straight region title. But as Friday night would prove, a repeat as state champion, for a mostly-new and more inexperienced 2020 team, wasn't in the cards. 
   "We ran into, obviously, a really good football team," Holmes said, underscoring the accomplishments of this team and career achievements of its senior class, which will go down as one of Dublin's most successful during his tenure. “These kids have had a good run. They’ve been a part of three region championships, they’ve been a part of a state championship." 
   The 2020 season, he added, will be one that's remembered in many ways for off-field adversity, but he said the way the team, staff and school had made the most of those obstacles were what turned an exhausting year into a satisfying ride. 
   "Right now, I’ll be glad when things get back to normal," Holmes said. 
   Brooks County will host Washington-Wilkes Friday in the state quarterfinals.