Cooley, Firebirds run over Gryphons in key Big East Conference clash
By PATRICK MASON
Friday, November 1, 2019
The Southern Nash single-season rushing record didn’t stand for long.
Quinton Cooley on Friday night broke the record in yet another one of his long string of standout performances this season as he led the Firebirds to a 35-14 win over host Rocky Mount High in a clash of the two top teams in the Big East Conference.
The Firebirds (10-0, 4-0) remain unbeaten and cleared their toughest test of the season in the form of a Gryphons team that entered on a four-game winning streak.
“At the end of it you just look at it as another game we had to get through,” Cooley said.
But there was more on the line for Cooley who, along with the rest of the Southern Nash rushing attack, proved too much to contain. The senior rushed for a game-high 192 yards and three touchdowns, while gaining the yardage needed to overtake former teammate and current N.C. State running back Zonovan Knight’s single-season rushing record.
Knight produced 2,054 yards and 26 touchdowns during his record-setting season last year. Cooley, who entered Friday’s game as the state’s leading rusher by nearly 300 yards, now has 2,102 yards this season to go with 40 total touchdowns.
The Firebirds running back said that he and Knight still keep in touch, and the two noted that Knight’s Wolfpack play Wake Forest this week, which is notable because Cooley committed to the Demon Deacons.
“We still talk,” Cooley said of his former running mate. “They play Wake this week so I've been talking to him about that. He asked me if I was going to be at the game but I don’t think I’m going to make it because we have a lot going on with us right now.”
While Cooley drew plenty of excited crowd noises during his tackle-breaking and side-stepping runs, the Firebirds put up 357 total yards on the ground. Southern Nash never trailed in the win as Jackson Vick took the first play of the game 55 yards for a touchdown.
Evan Barnes made a 27-yard field goal to put the Firebirds up 10-0 with 4:04 left in the first quarter. And midway through the second quarter, Cooley’s 1-yard end zone plunge gave Southern Nash a 17-0 lead.
It was after that score where the Gryphons (7-3, 3-1) were able to take advantage of some rhythm in the passing game. Quarterback Jaquan Lynch completed four passes on the previous drive to set up a 31-yard field goal try that missed wide left.
The Gryphons went back to the pass with a play-action call on the Firebirds’ 29 and Lynch found Antwain Dunston all alone in the end zone for a touchdown. But that was all RMH would get as the offense never got going again.
RMH was held to 188 total yards, with 76 coming in the second half. Southern Nash cornerback Izaiah Walker-Warren recorded a fourth-quarter interception when the Gryphons took a deep shoot after the Firebirds pushed the lead to 35-14 on the previous drive.
“Jaquan Lynch can really throw that ball,” Walker-Warren said. “We gave up a touchdown in the first half and we were getting beat deep on some plays. (Coach Brian) Foster had to yell at me a few times, so I wanted to set a tone in the second half.”
The Gryphons defense, meanwhile, entered the game with 22 takeaways and was sharp again. The unit scored as many points as the offense, while holding Southern Nash to it fewest points of the season.
Junior Justin Terry tallied his fourth interception of the season when he picked off Firebirds quarterback Matt Foster late in the third quarter and ran it back 33 yards for a touchdown. It was the Gryphons’ 13th interception of the season.
“We work really hard on turning the ball over in practice,” Terry said. “You have to stay disciplined. I can’t bite too much on the run, so I tell myself I have to stay disciplined. On that play, I saw the quarterback roll out so I opened to the boundary, saw him throw it and got in front of it. I tried my hardest to score no matter what.”
The Firebirds need a win next week against Franklinton to complete four undefeated runs in conference play. SN hasn’t dropped a Big East Conference game since a 2015 loss to the eventual 3-A state champion Gryphons.
SN — Jackson Vick 55 run (Evan Barnes kick), 11:38
SN — Barnes 27 FG, 4:04
SN — Quinton Cooley 1 run (Barnes kick), 7:37
RMH — Antwain Dunston 29 pass from Jaquan Lynch (Andrew Rollans kick), 6:45
SN — Safety, 49.7
SN — Cooley 4 run (Matt Foster run), 7:38
RMH — Justin Terry 33 interception return (Rollans kick), 1:50
SN — Cooley 12 run (Cooley run), 11:10