Daniel comes back to win at Ninety Six

By Rocky Nimmons

NINETY SIX — It wasn’t always pretty, but it was enough.

The Daniel Lions (4-3, 0-1) got off their losing skid with a 34-33 come-from-behind victory over the Ninety Six Wildcats on Thursday night at Wilson- Campbell Stadium.

The Lions showed a huge amount of intestinal fortitude under adverse conditions, almost two hours away from home, during a rare Thursday night varsity contest.

Daniel head coach Jeff Fruster said it best when he said, “This win was on the kids.”

“I thought they fought well the whole night,” he said. “My hat is off to Ninety Six. Their record is not indicative of their play. Coach (Mike) Doolittle has a good team down here.”

From the opening whistle, it looked as if Daniel would be making quick work of the Wildcats, jumping out to a first quarter 14-0 lead. As it turned out, an easy victory just wasn’t in the cards, as Ninety Six stormed back in the second quarter to take a 20-14 lead into the half.

“We obviously had a lot of ups and a lot of downs,” Fruster said. “We made plenty of mistakes — it is too late in the year to be doing that.”

Fruster said his team’s handling of adversity was the key.

“I am continually harping about momentum,” he said. “It is about trying to win the turnover margin and limiting the big plays. You just have to find a little bit of success to try to build on. It was definitely sloppy, but a win is a win, and we are going to take it.”

The Lions are as tenacious as their head coach and battled back to right the ship and get the win.

10-12 Page 1B.inddDaniel, which was without the services of several starters, relied on underclassmen to fill the holes left vacant by the injury bug following the previous week’s battle with Wren.

Sophomore backup QB Noah Lupton stepped up and played excellent, going 14-for-25 for 267 yards and one interception. Lupton took over for injured starter Ben Batson.

Fruster said it puts a coach’s mind at ease when he can insert a backup and still get production.

“It helps when he can come in and step up and make big plays,” he said. “It lets you know you aren’t going to lose your whole season if you lose one kid. Lupton made some great decisions, especially with his limited experience. I am proud of him. It puts some pressure on everybody else in that position.”

The game started with both teams feeling each other out, as the Lions’ defense forced punts the first two times the Wildcats had the ball.

The Lions scored first on a three-play, 61-yard drive. The series didn’t start off well as Kiandre Sims was hammered for a two-yard loss, followed by a short two-yard gain when he snagged a Lupton pass on the series’ second snap. They say speed kills, and it did hurt the Ninety Six defense when Lupton spotted a streaking Brandon Peppers and shot a bullet his way. The rest was all Peppers as he dashed 61 yards with 6:13 to play in the first quarter for a Lion touchdown. Nick Muchow added the point after, giving the Lions an early 7-0 lead.

The Daniel defense continued to hold the Cats’ offense in check and forced a punt without the luxury of a first down the next time Ninety Six had the ball.

Starting at the Cats’ 40, Daniel pushed the ball to paydirt in seven plays, the biggest of which was a 25-yard pass from Lupton to Will Swinney. The play set up a first and goal at the Wildcat 4-yard line. A false start penalty slowed the score, but three plays later Lupkin again found Peppers in the back of the end zone for six. Muchow drilled the PAT with 2:24 to play in the first to give his team a 14-0 advantage.

The Lions’ defense seemed on top of their game and continued to dominate the Cats, again forcing a three and out. Daniel was on the march again and pushed the ball 36 yards in eight plays, only to stall at the Ninety Six 12-yard line. Muchow was called on to add a field goal, but missed his mark on the 29-yard try.

Ninety Six had had enough the next time they got the pigskin, producing a 13-play, 80-yard drive for points. Saquon Garner finished the series when he outran the Daniel defenders on a 14-yard scamper. With 4:30 to play in the half, Daniel led 14-7.

The next two score for the Wildcats were gifts. The first was set up by a Lupton interception caught by Wildcat Rytavis Brown. The pick gave the Cats the ball at the Daniel 37, setting up a short field for Ninety Six. The Cats pounded the Lion defense, running the ball six of seven plays. The touchdown came on a four-yard Garner run with 1:13 to play in the half. The door to victory was open, however as the PAT missed its mark, leaving the Cats behind 14-13.

10-12 Page 1B.inddDaniel hoped to make a statement before halftime, however it was the Cats who did the deed with a 98-yard interception return for a score as time ran out. The Lions pushed the ball 33 yards in six plays and did manage to get to the Ninety Six 35 with two ticks left on the scoreboard clock. Facing fourth and 11, Fruster pulled Lipton in favor of Charlie Metcalf. Metcalf, who has not taken a snap in a game since his freshman year in JV, had the tough job to heave a Hail Mary into the Wildcats’ endzone and hope for the best.

Ninety Six defensive back Kentavious Williams outjumped the Daniel receivers and snagged an interception at the 2-yard line and out ran the Lions 98 yard for a score. The Wildcats carried a 20-14 lead into the intermission.

According to Fruster, the Lions had been rotating quarterbacks all week in practice.

“We were going to give both of our backups a try so they could prove themselves,” he said. “It was (Metcalf’s) turn, no matter what the play call was. I would fault the play call more than I would the athlete.”

The Lions continued to self-destruct in the second half. The Lions got the ball first to open play. On Daniel’s second snap, Sims lost his handle on the ball and fumbled the ball away, with the Cats recovering at their own 39. On the first snap, Wildcat QB Justin Alford got around end and raced 57 yards to the Lions’ 4-yard line. Two plays later, Garner smashed in from five yards out for a touchdown. After the PAT, Ninety Six led 27-14 with 10:41 to play in the third.

The Lions immediately answered with a four-play, 51-yard drive. Will Swinney was the man as he pulled in a 25-yard catch followed by a seven-yard pass for the touchdown. Muchow nailed the PAT, and the Lions were on the comeback trail, behind 27-21.

The Cats answered with a TD march of their own. In only four plays, Ninety Six went 78 yards. Big plays again short-circuited the Daniel defense with Alford going to the air, first hitting Graham Price for 28 yards. Then he went to the ground and handed the ball to Brown, and the speedy back went 41 yards for a score with 8:21 still to play in the third. Another missed extra point made the score 33-21 in favor of Ninety Six.

It was put up or shut up time, for the Lions and Fru’s Crew knew it. The Lions had to score twice and eat clock. That they did. The next time Daniel had the ball, the Columbia Blue and Gold managed a nine-play, 59-yard drive that was again capped with a nice Lupton to Swinney pass for 14 yards and a touchdown. Muchow added the PAT, and the Lions were down 5 at 33-28.

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Rex Brown/Courtesy The Journal
Daniel’s Jake Venables returns an interception during the Lions’ win at Ninety Six on Friday night.

Daniel’s defense had to bow its collective back and stop the Wildcats if there was to be a hope of a miracle finish. Muchow’s ensuing kickoff drifted out of bounds, giving the Cats the ball with a first and 10 at the 35. All the Cats had in mind was to grind it out and use clock in the process. The plan looked to be working, with Ninety Six moving to the Lions’ 17-yard line in 11 plays. Facing third and six, Alford elected to try to pick up the yardage himself, only to be met head-on by Daniel defensive end Bru Nimmons, who halted the QB for no gain. The final play saw Alford miss on a pass, giving the Lions the pigskin back and ending the threat of more points for the Wildcats.

The final winning drive for the Lions came as time ticked away. The series was only made possible by a huge interception by Daniel linebacker Jake Venable. The play saw him pick off the ball at the Lions’ 18-yard line and race 44 yards to the Ninety Six 39. Lupton and company pushed the ball the distance in six plays. The series was highlighted by a 32-yard pass from Lupton to Issac Weaver, setting up a first and goal at the Cats’ 2-yard line. It was all Sims as the back pushed in for the score with only 3:29 to play. Fruster elected to go for a two-point conversion, but the try failed when Swinney was hemmed in and denied the endzone. Despite the stop, the Lions had the lead back at 34-33.

10-12 Page 1B.inddThe game was iced on the ensuing kickoff. Muchow lined up and somehow miskicked the ball, pooching the kick straight up. The surprised Ninety Six return team never had a chance, with the Lions recovering then running out the clock for the victory.

Rex Brown/Courtesy The Journal
Daniel’s Will Swinney celebrates with a teammate after scoring a touchdown during Friday’s game at Ninety Six.

“We are far from where we need to be. I think that is evident with this score tonight,” Fruster said. “But as long as our team continues to give effort and tries to get better, I think we are going to be OK,” Fruster said.

This week the Lions will get a chance to redeem themselves in Region I-4A play following an upset loss two weeks ago to Wren, when the Belton-Honea Path Bears visit Central.

“That is the great thing about being only one region game in,” Fruster said. “The possibilities are still out there. We are still playing for our playoff lives. We are not taking anything for granted. We are not going to succumb to any pressure. We are going to give the teams we play our best.

“I know BHP only has one loss. They have all the stats in the world. Their quarterback can throw it a mile. Their running back has over 1,000 yards. They have weapons. So it is going to be very difficult for us to even slow them down.”

The game is set for a 7:30 p.m. kick on Friday at Singleton Field in Central.