Lee County quarterback Stephen Collier poses after being named homecoming king Friday night in Leesburg. (Timothy Threadcraft/Special to The Herald)
LEESBURG -- As we hit the home stretch in the GHSA playoff race, it goes without saying that every snap counts. This is all too true for Lee County, reeling after its first loss of the year, a 45-14 drubbing by region foe Thomas County Central.
With the Yellow Jackets facing lowly Hardaway tonight, the Trojans needed a win to keep their hopes of a Region 1-AAAAA crown and a home playoff game alive with defending region champ Harris County (6-2, 2-1) coming to town. To the delight of the home crowd, the Herald No. 1 Trojans (7-1, 2-1) bounced back in a major way, routing the Tigers to the tune of 44-7.
“Last week, we don’t feel like we played our style of football,” Lee head coach Dean Fabrizio said afterwards. “We turned the ball over six times. So we challenged our kids to respond this week. We wanted to come out and make a statement, and we think we did that (Friday) night.”
After the teams hit the locker rooms at halftime, the switched was flipped. After Dynamite Dozen quarterback Stephen Collier was crowned homecoming king at the half, he proceeded to connect on two 50-yard bombs to put Harris County away.
“It’s been a great day,” Collier said. “Our effort was great. We weren’t executing well in the first half. We made some adjustments at halftime, and eventually we got it right. I want to shoutout my offensive line. They played a phenomenal game up front. Probably the best game they’ve played so far. The defense did their job and we came out with the win. That’s how it’s supposed to be: a good team win.”
The importance of the home-field advantage was evident Friday night. In a contest in which they were held scoreless in the first quarter for the first time all season, the Trojans’ drives were marred by penalties and turnovers for the bulk of the first half.
“We’re not there yet, by any means,” said Fabrizio of the Trojans’ playoff hopes. “We still have two games left to win. But we knew if we wanted to host a game here, we had to win (Friday) night. Our kids knew that and really responded well.”
The Tigers had scored no less than 30 points in each game after their season-opening loss to Valdosta. This week, their only points came on a tremendous touchdown run by TaQuon Marshall while the game was well out of reach.
“Harris County has a great football team,” Fabrizio said. “They’d won six in a row, they’re the defending region champs, and we knew we had to play four quarters of hard football. The first half, we had a couple of turnovers that took us out of some drives, but it came together in the second half."
Lee County would strike first, after J.Q. Quimbley caught a strike from Collier near the sidelines, juked a Harris County defensive back, cut back inside, and sprinted upfield for a 21-yard touchdown. The Trojans turned the ball over three times before intermission, but the Tigers weren’t able to capitalize. It would come back to haunt them.
After they forced a three-and-out on the Trojans’ first possession after the break, Harris County’s punt returner muffed the kick, giving the home team the ball in great field position. Two plays later, Collier found Bernard McCray striding down the sidelines en route to a 50-yard touchdown reception to stretch the Trojans’ lead to 14.
Collier and the offense wouldn’t look back from that point. After failing to move the chains on their next possession, Harris County’s punt was blocked deep in their own territory. The Trojans converted a 27-yard field goal shortly after to go up 17-0. On the next play from scrimmage, TaQuon Marshall’s pass was intercepted by senior linebacker Jeremiah Irby. Three plays later, Jamal Gardner plunged over the goal line from four yards out, stretching the lead to 24-0 Lee County with 5:43 left in the third quarter.
While the offense worked out their issues, the defense held steady all night for the Trojans. The leading contributor for the Tigers, Marshall, only notched about 80 total yards.
“I couldn’t be more proud of our defense,” Fabrizio said. “We knew coming into the game that we had a great challenge. They were averaging about 40 points per game. They’ve got one of the best running backs in the state, an exceptional quarterback. To hold them to seven points is outstanding."
Collier steadied the ship for the Trojans, bouncing back after a first half where he threw an interception and lost a fumble to finish 12-for-20 with 327 yards and four touchdowns through the air. He tallied eight carries for 54 yards rushing and a touchdown.
Willie Kelly led the Trojans in rushing, with nine carries for 64 yards. In the second half, the Trojan receiving corps looked like a totally different group than the one that dropped at least eight passes in a win over Dodge County earlier in the year. Quimbley caught eight passes for 163 yards and two touchdowns. Devonte Seay added five catches for 99 yards and a touchdown.
“We’ve got a very young receiving corps,” Fabrizio said. “They’re young, but they’re a talented group. We knew all year that they were capable of playing a game like this. They finally put it together tonight, and I’m happy with their performance. They’re really growing up.”
“We were checking with the coaches about our plays almost all night,” Collier said. “It was good to see that chemistry coming together. It’s come together in bursts, I mean last week we had a no-touchdown game, now this week we had a four-touchdown game. I think it’s becoming more consistent, and I think we’re going to do some big things further on in the season.”
“We just had to practice hard,” Quimbley said. “We couldn’t just keep our heads down after the loss and the drops. We had to put that behind us.”
Lee County committed five penalties for a total of 50 yards, while Harris County drew seven flags for a total of 40 yards in just the first half. Jeremiah Irby had two tackles for loss to go along with his interception.
The Trojans host Northside-Columbus next Friday, while Harris County hosts Hardaway.