HARRELLS — Two questions emerged just after kickoff last Friday, on a night when fog was as much a part of the football game as the ground.
Would Harrells Christian Academy be able to thwart the passing game of the Cabarrus School?
Would the Warriors be able to stop fullback Devin Gardner and his backfield mate?
The Crusader offense bailed out the defense. Yet Cabarrus had no answer for the Wing-T.
HCA rolled to a 42-21 halftime edge and led by as many as 35 en route to a 63-35 win in the semifinals of the NCISAA’s Division 2 playoffs.
The No. 2 Crusaders (8-0) will travel to Arden, near Asheville, to take on No. 1 Christ School (6-2) on Friday.
HCA piled up 491 yards of total offense score a season-high in points. The Crusaders used several big plays to average 10.2 yards per snap.
Garnder ran for 279 yards and five touchdowns, and got another score on a fumble recovery.
Xavier Arrington added 112 yards and two TDs playing his best game of the season.
“We’ve had games where the defense won it for us but tonight it was the offense’s turn and they carried us,” said fourth-year HCA coach Jason Arnette. “Late in the game we couldn’t seem to get out of our own way. Hats off to the team on the other side of the field. They played a full game.
“The defense made some plays, but the offense covered up a lot of mistakes.”
The Crusaders got burned on a pair of third-and-long passes as Cabarrus went 64 yards in eight plays to take a 7-0 lead.
HCA drove 77 yards in 11 plays to tie it.
Gardner had jaunts of 22 and 13 yards and then six more on fourth-and-5 from the 13.
Arrington, who also had a 22-yard effort during the drive, scored from the 7.
The Warriors responded on fourth-and-goal 11 plays later.
Three Tyler Green passes took the ball to the 10 and RB Will Jones (20-74) punched it in after taking the snap in the Wildcat offense.
Gardner took the air out of Cabarrus on the first play from scrimmage, bolting 74 yards to make it 21-14.
Issac Jiminez forced a fumble on the next play from scrimmage and Gardner pounded on it.
Arrington pushed it into the end zone on the next play.
But QB Green was just warming up. His 42-yard strike to Max Riley five plays later cut the lead to 28-21.
A 30-yard scamper by Arrington was the key play that made it 35-21. Garnder scored from the 1 at the 5:551 mark of the second quarter.
A solid kickoff return by Camryn Brown-Leak foreshadowed the four-play march.
HCA’s defense played its best near the end of the first half.
While the offense stalled near midfield, a turnover turned the tide.
But it wasn’t Walker Ward’s interception. It was a fumble forced by MLB Trent Jackson and scooped up by OLB Gardner for a 3-yard score.
A sack by Jiminez ended a Warrior threat, and HCA went into the locker room in front by three scores (42-21).
“We didn’t come in on our high horses thinking we’re 7-0 and can’t be beaten,” said two-way lineman Jaheim Murphy, who had a season-high seven tackles. “We had assignments to carry out.”
It was Gardner’s seventh consecutive 100-yard plus effort as the Warriors were unable to put him on the ground with consistency.
“My line opened it up so I have to start there,” said Gardner, who still had blades of grass on his face in following the game. “I said it before, but we’re on a mission to get a ring (championship).
Offensive coordinator Clayton Hall said the Crusaders showed improvement.
“The O-line has its struggles and we missed assignments but not as many as we did the week before,” he said. “ Devin obviously had a great night but the key for that was getting Xavier and our other backs going.”
Hall saved HCA’s lone pass for the opening drive of the second half.
On third-and-9, QB Ethan Spell hit a wide open Sam Hope for 53 yards.
Gardner’s fifth score came from the 8.
Another fumble recovery by Gardner led to Issac Underwood’s 3-yard run.
Up 56-21 it was all but over.
But Green never gave up.
A pass interference call took the ball inside the HCA 10.
He connected with David Wheeler for a score on third-and-goal from the 5.
An Arrington fumble four plays later led to more of the Warriors’ passing show.
Green hit Wheeler for a 34-yard score to trim the deficit to 56-35.
Another Arrington drop, this time inside the Cabarrus 10, gave the ball back to the Warriors. But three incomplete passes later and the ball was punted away, and HCA was set up at its own 31.
On this night, one run by Gardner covered the distance.
Cabarrus found its way to midfield, even though defensive ends Murphy and Tracey Boone caused havoc.
The Warriors converted three third-down plays and a fourth-and-4, but came up short on fourth-and-13 from their own 49.
Green was 19 of 40 for 275 yards and four TDs, leading his team to convert 8 of 15 chances on third down and 2 of 3 on fourth down. HCA had just one more first down (22-21). Both teams were heavily penalized. HCA was flagged eight times for 90 yards and Cabarrus seven times for 70 yards.
Jackson had 9.5 tackles to lead all defenders. Barber and Murphy had seven each and Grice Bell five. Spell, Arrington and Albert Thornton combined for 12 takedowns by the secondary. Jiminez had three sacks.
HCA outrushed Cabarrus 438-88. The Warriors had a 275-53 edge in passing.
Both teams punted three times.
Spell was perfect on eight PATs and is 28 of 32 for the season.
Gardner upped his rushing totals to 1,310 yards and 23 TDs.
Arrington has 450 yards.
Only two fans per player will be permitted to attend Friday’s state championship game.
Trinity is the lone common opponent. HCA nipped Trinity 7-6 on opening night and captured a 27-15 affair in the regular-season finale.
Cabarrus beat Trinity 38-0 in the semifinals.