It was like watching a car crash… over and over again. By the fourth quarter, it was almost hard to watch. Clarke County running back Hunter Rogers tried his best to put his team on his back. And he took an absolute pounding for it and while Goochland’s defense was able to slow him down in the second half, that unit took a beating from a massive offensive line before any and every tackle. It was, to say the least, a complete war of attrition that was just one side of the game. On the other side, the Bulldogs were opportunistic, methodical, and punted just once. As such, with a trio of turnovers created by the defense, Goochland was able to move on to the Group 2A final four with a 28-14 win over a Clarke team that was as good as advertised and gave the Bulldogs all they could handle.
“That was as much fun on this field as I’ve had in a long, long time,” said Goochland coach Joe Fowler. “Our kids made great plays. Besides the interceptions, (Clarke) didn’t make a mistake all night. They didn’t put the ball on the ground like they have in some other games. Tonight our kids were just a little bit better. That’s a testament to their character.”
It was the Eagles that set the tone for a game of trench warfare when they melted more than half of the first quarter away on their first drive, one capped by Daniel Braithwaite on a 15-yard rush. Goochland punted on its first drive but pinned Clarke deep to force a punt right back. It was there where the Bulldogs evened things up with Marcus Burton carrying the load and setting up a 3-yard quarterback keeper from Tanner Bradshaw to even things up at 7-7.
The ensuing Clarke drive saw a bevy of pivotal moments, including a pair of fourth and short conversions in the redzone. Goochland got a huge tackle for a loss after the second conversion, but then in a rare Eagle’s passing play, Chris Davis found Brett McDonald on an across-the-body throw on the run in the middle of the endzone for a 12-yard touchdown with just under a minute until the break.
Goochland responded with a huge play as time expired when Bradshaw hit Cordell Mattox on a deep pass. While it initially looked like a 65-yard TD, Mattox was ruled to have just been bumped out of bounds at the 14. It was a sign of things to come though.
“We felt like we were moving the ball and that it would just come down to who could grind the clock down the most,” Fowler said. “At the end, we had a little bit more in the tank.”
The second half, by all accounts, belonged to Goochland. While the Eagles dominated the time of possesion, the Bulldogs had everything break their way. The third quarter started with the most physical drive for the Goochland offense all night. Martin’s hard running on the edge set up a 10-yard rushing touchdown from Burton. Then the Bulldogs defense forced a turnover on downs at midfield. With Mattox, Burton and Martin staying hot, Bradshaw picked up his second rushing strike of the night on a 1-yard keeper to give Goochland its first lead of the game, and one that would last.
At the break, Goochland employed a strategy defensive that’s worked previously in the playoffs before, calling on its defensive line to literally crawl through the offensive line to set up the tackles by its linebacking corps and safeties.
“It was a defensive line adjustment, trying to hit the correct gaps,” said Goochland’s Matt Marks. “Pretty much it was a mind game. It started with the center, trying to see if there was a bad snap. After that it was about who’s coming from where and what do you have to do to get around them.”
It worked wonders as Clarke was held scoreless in the second half. And for a defense that practices against a similar offense, albeit with a different scheme, it was an impressive performance.
“It was weird,” said Goochland’s Clay Brooks. “It was like going through practice. And they were a little bigger than us too. But I thought our defense just did great.”
Clarke put together one more serious drive strung together with third down conversion after third down conversion, getting into the red zone with one three-and-a-half yard run after another. But when the Eagles attempted to catch the Bulldogs off-guard with a passing play, Calvin Martin came up with an interception in the endzone with just over four minutes to play.
“Coach told us practice when it’s third and long, like five or six the pass will come because that’s not how they can get the first down running our way,” Martin said. “I baited him into throwing it. He had two receivers to throw and as soon as he went to throw I was able to run and make the play for my team. As soon as we got that interception, the offense came on the field filled with momentum. We went down and did Goochland football, it was as simple as that.”
Mattox drove the Bulldogs down the field as he piled up a bevy of yards after contact. After a big run by Bradshaw that chewed through Clarke’s timeouts, Mattox put the game out of reach on an 8-yard touchdown run.
Clarke tried to make something happen in the air with just over a minute to play but when Cole Nuckols came up with an interception as the clock hit zero, the game was officially over.
“Those kids from Clarke are warriors and our kids are too,” Fowler said. “They’re beat up, we’re beat up. It’s a good thing that the kids get to sleep up and relax for a little bit.”
On the night, Goochland got 83 yards on seven carries from Mattox. Bruton finished with 81 yards on 12 attempts. Martin had six touches for 41 yards. Bradshaw was 3-for-4 passing with 85 yards and chipped in 23 yards rushing on five carries.
For Clarke, Rogers had 28 touches for 115 yards. The Eagles had the ball for 48:19 to Goochland’s 28.33.
Goochland (13-0) will travel to face Appomattox (13-0) or Richlands in the Group 2A semifinals next weekend in a meeting of the second seed from the East bracket facing the top remaining seed from the West. This is the first time the Bulldogs have been in the final four since 2012 where they won a state title. It’s their third trip to the final four in six years.