CORNELIUS – When Hough High’s offense spoke up, coach Bobby Collins listened.
The Huskies, protecting a 28-27 lead against Independence on Sept. 20, were starting a drive from their 39-yard line. Four minutes were left.
In the huddle on the sideline, running back Tylan Murrell was tapping his chest, telling Collins to give him the ball. The offensive linemen were nodding in agreement.
The Huskies needed yards and needed the clock to run. The choice was simple for Collins.
Murrell carried seven straight times, and despite Independence knowing it was coming, had gains of seven, 12, eight, six, three, four and six yards. Hough wracked up three first downs, and quarterback Josh Stilley knelt down on the last two plays to kill the clock.
Hough improved to 4-0 and cemented itself as a contender.
“We’ve got a senior tailback, Tylan Murrell, running the heck out of the football,” Collins said. “We have a great offensive line. I won’t deny those guys. If the tailback tells me to give him the ball and the offensive line are telling me to run it, that’s what we’re going to do.”
Hough had plenty to celebrate, but seem determined not to make this game the season’s zenith. The Huskies are envisioning playing for a conference title, making a deep playoff run and ultimately, a championship. It’s not a pipe dream, not when you rally to beat one of Charlotte’s marquee programs (Independence won seven state titles from 2000 to 2006).
Hough, trailing 27-21, marched 77 yards for the winning score last in the fourth quarter. There was absolutely nothing fancy about it, nor much Independence could do to stop it.
The Huskies simply ran straight up the middle, with Murrell churning his legs and refusing to be tackled by the initial hit. His escorts opened holes consistently through the game – left guard Connor Brooks, right guard Christian Walker, left tackle Tyler Blankenship, right tackle Avery Brumlow and center Jacob McCreary.
Hough converted three third-down plays during the pivotal drive. Stilley connected on a 21-yard pass to Carl Tucker. Fullback Will McIntyre burst up the middle for a 20-yard gain. And Murrell carried seven times on the drive for 35 yards. His eight-yard touchdown run with five minutes, 29 seconds left tied the game at 27.
Hough’s Tin Gawert calmly kicked his fourth extra-point of the game to make it 28-27.
Independence (2-2) erased Hough’s 21-14 halftime lead with two third-quarter touchdowns. But the Patriots’ extra-point kick sailed wide right after their fourth score, which gave Independence a 27-21 lead.
Murrell finished with 180 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 32 carries. At crunch time, he wanted the ball.
“I told coach (Collins) I didn’t want any mistakes or fumbles, so put it on my back,” Murrell said. “Our offensive line has a lot of good chemistry and gel well. It’s easy to run behind them because they work so well together.”
McCreary, a senior center, has played every offensive snap in Hough’s four-year history. He and the fellow linemen knew what the key would be in the final drive.
“Hold onto the ball,” he said. “The offensive line just had to drive them. Take your zone steps. Basics. Go back to what we do every day. We adjusted well to the defensive front. We saw it in practice and our coaches did a great job of preparing us all week.”
Collins said having three experienced seniors (Walker, Brooks and McCreary) on the offensive line helps.
“Jacob McCreary, if we’re up by 40 points, he won’t come out of the game,” Collins said. “You’ve got a guy that’s been snapping footballs to Josh Stilly for the last four years. I tell him the center is the centerpiece of the puzzle. If the ball doesn’t snap, we can’t play football. Connor Brooks is right beside him at left guard. Christian Walker is 6-foot-3 and 365 pounds at right guard. So we’re going to run the football behind those guys.”
Hough will host Hopewell (1-3) in the MECKA 4A conference opener at 7 p.m. Sept. 27. The showdown for first place likely will be Oct. 11 against unbeaten Mallard Creek.
“Teams are going to get in our way,” Collins said. “Adversity is going to come, but we’re trying to get to the state championship game. This (victory) is a feather in our cap because we’d never beaten them before. It’s got to keep us humble and keep us hungry.”
But for one night, it made all the Huskies giddy.
Was Hough’s pulsating one-point victory against Independence the biggest in the program’s four seasons?
“Yes,” McCreary said. “So far.”