By JIM ELLIOTT
HUNTINGTON - Swept left, drag right, fullback dive up the gut.
Wheeling Park quarterback Zach Phillips attempts a pass against Huntington.
The state's smallest playbook is going to its biggest stage as the Huntington Highlanders dissected what had been a mostly impenetrable Wheeling Park defense for 381 yards - all on the ground - in a 34-21 victory in a West Virginia Class AAA state seminal Saturday night at Bob Sang Stadium.
Paden Christian went straight ahead for 162 yards on 30 carries.
Nick Tubbs stretched it right for 112 yards and two touchdowns at a time when everything went wrong for Wheeling Park.
Finally, Charles Crawford strung the Patriots to the left for 82 yards on 13 touches.
Rinse and repeat.
"Those are the three plays they ran against everybody all year long," Wheeling Park coach Chris Daugherty said of the top-ranked and still unbeaten Highlanders. "They've got a good ballclub, a good bunch of kids. They're No. 1 for a reason. They've got a bunch of athletes and they make you work. And they did."
They pounded out most of that production in the first half, which probably couldn't have gone much worse for a Patriots team that believed the key to winning the game would be to jump out to an early lead.
The Highlanders (13-0) ran up 264 rushing yards with Crawford, Tubbs, and Christian all scoring touchdowns in the first half. Park (11-2), meanwhile, had 6 yards on 13 snaps, plus it had committed the game's lone turnover, the first of three interceptions by heady senior quarterback Zach Phillips.
The first downs, through the game's first 24 minutes, were 10-1 in favor of Huntington.
What are the odds?
Still, Park found a pulse late in the third quarter (after coming up empty on its first drive of the half after Eric Banks was ruled to have juggled a potential touchdown as he was falling out of bounds).
Savion Johnson scored a you-won't-believe-this 36-yard touchdown where he seemingly introduced himself to every Highlanders defender along the way. The Patriots gave one back (another Tubbs run), then went back to work and scored two in a row, one on a 32-yard pass from Phillips to Michael Grove, the next on a 2-yard run by Johnson.
Suddenly, it was 27-21 with 4:39 to play.
The 21 points matched the most Huntington had yielded all season, and it hadn't given up more than 18 at home.
"We just told them relax," Highlanders coach Billy Seals said of his wider-eyed defenders. "We got a little rattled. We got good pressure on (Phillips), and he got out of a couple of sacks we should have made. We didn't tackle the Johnson kid on a long run. We got a little winded, but our kids came back and won the fourth quarter."
Not really (Park outscored the Highlanders 14-13) but his point was made by his players, who went out and got a pair of first downs and whittled all but the last 44 seconds off the clock and punted the ball back to the Patriots at their own 6.
"We felt like if we could get a couple of first downs, we could win the game," Seals said.
If they didn't, what happened next did.
Stefan Gibbs ended things on Park's first snap when he intercepted a pass and took it 5 yards for a clinching score.
It was the Highlanders third forced turnover. Wheeling Park had none.
"The turnover battle is going to win you a lot of games," Seals said.
"I'm sure, in a game like this, we'll watch the film and point out a thousand things that went wrong, but then a thousand things that went right in the second half," Daugherty said. "It's tough. It doesn't matter if you lose in Round 1 or Round 3. It hurts."