GOOSE CREEK | Carolina Forest survived a late push from Goose Creek Friday night to earn a 35-28 victory and advance to the second round of the Class 5A playoffs.
"We're fortunate to play one more round this year," Panthers coach Marc Morris said.
The teams traded three and outs on their opening drives, but it was the Panthers who took advantage of the second chance given to them midway through the first quarter.
Luke Janack ran it in to give Carolina Forest a 7-0 lead with 6:31 left in the first quarter, but Goose Creek responded immediately on the next possession.
Khyon Smith caught a pass running a slant route and then turned on the afterburners to score, tying things up at seven apiece at the 5:27 mark of the first.
The teams went back and forth. The Panthers put together a strong drive at the end of the first quarter that carried over into the second, and quarterback Kyle Watkins muscled his way into the end zone to help the Panthers retake the lead.
Once again, though, it was another quick response from Goose Creek. The Gators tied things up less than a minute later at 14.
Janack then dashed 65 yards to get the Panthers inside the Gator 5. Watkins finished off the drive one play later, giving the Panthers a 21-14 lead with just over eight minutes to go in the first half.
The Panthers took the single-touchdown lead into the halftime break.
Goose Creek started the second half the same way they began the first — with a three and out.
The Panthers seized that opportunity. Watkins found the end zone for a third time, giving Carolina Forest a 28-14 lead with 4:34 left in the third.
Carolina Forest kept the ball on the ground for most of the game, though the conditions at Goose Creek were not ideal after this week's drenching rain. Some penalties that teams committed were due to players slipping in the mud.
"I felt that we should have passed the ball more," Morris said. "Kyle is a great passer, but with the kind of conditions we had tonight and the type of explosive offense Goose Creek has, we felt it was better to run the clock and keep the defense off the field as much as possible."
Goose Creek would bring things within a touchdown going into the final quarter, but Watkins capped off a stellar game with his fourth rushing touchdown of the night with just under 10 minutes to play.
It looked as if the Panthers would seal victory after an Adam Janack interception at the 8:38 mark. They marched down the field, consuming clock. Watkins then found wideout DJ Admill in the end zone, but Admill dropped the ball.
The dropped pass came on a fourth-down play, which gave the ball back to Goose Creek with less than two minutes to go.
Two roughing the passer penalties on Carolina Forest helped the Gators march down the field, and Goose Creek found the end zone with 45 seconds to go.
"When you're one of eight of the best teams left in lower state, you're going to get another great team," Morris said, referring to the nature of the COVID-19-shortened playoff format. "Goose Creek played hard. They have a great program."
A penalty on the ensuing kickoff forced a rekick and it was Admill, the player who dropped what could have been a game-sealing touchdown, who came up with the loose ball and sealed victory for the Panthers.
"We talk about it with our kids all the time — don't ride the roller coaster," Morris said. "Don't get too high when things go great and don't get too low when things aren't going right. I'm so proud of [DJ]."
"That explains our team right there," Watkins said. "Put stuff in the past and make plays."
Carolina Forest improved to 7-1 on the year and will take on Dutch Fork on the road next week in a rematch of last season's lower state championship.
"No matter our opponent, we're going to come and hit them in the mouth," Watkins said. "Hopefully we come out on top."
Dutch Fork is the four-time defending Class 5A state champion, boasting a 60-1 record during that title-winning stretch and holding a 46-game winning streak.
"They got a great program up there," Morris said. "I know it's going to be a different team than what they had last year. Coach Knotts will have his kids ready and we will have ours ready."