Football may be a game of inches, but sometimes it's a matter of simple math: Touchdowns are worth six points; field goals are good for three; six is greater than three.
That basic formula proved to be the difference for Carolina Forest in an otherwise close second-round Class 5A playoff contest with visiting River Bluff on Thursday night.
In a game that was nearly dead even statistically, the Panthers (10-1) scored five touchdowns while the Gators (9-3) settled for four field goals in a 36-25 Carolina Forest victory.
"I told our defense they didn't play great, but when you can hold teams to field goals instead of touchdowns you've got a chance to win," said Carolina Forest coach Marc Morris.
Carolina Forest outgained River Bluff 298-283 on the night, but the scales didn't tip in the Panthers' favor until midway through the third quarter after the Gators took a 22-21 lead — their first of the game since an early 3-0 edge.
Carolina Forest turned to the tandem of running back David Legette (25 carries for 180 yards) and quarterback Mason Garcia (19 carries for 88 yards), who rushed for two touchdowns apiece and chewed up the wet turf and the clock the rest of the way.
"Our offensive line has been doing it all year and they got it done tonight," said Garcia, who was limited to 4-for-9 passing for 28 yards on a sloppy field. "When it was time to take control of the game, they did it."
Garcia's 1-yard battle into the end zone, followed by Kyle Watkins' 2-point conversion run, put the Panthers up for good at 29-22. River Bluff managed to cut the deficit to 29-25 with a fourth quarter field goal, but Legette's 5-yard TD scamper ended the threat.
"We needed seven (points) and got three," said River Bluff coach Blair Hardin, who previously coached at North Myrtle Beach. "You're not going to beat a team like Carolina Forest kicking field goals. My hat's off to Marc and his team for what they've accomplished."
Carolina Forest also turned the tide with special teams, forcing a fumble that halted River Bluff's last chance to cut the deficit. Adam Janack intercepted a late pass to punch the Panthers' ticket to the third round of the playoffs against the winner of Friday's matchup between Summerville and Goose Creek.
"I'm just so proud of these kids for their hard work and the way they played," Morris said. "Now it's time to go do it again next week."
Both teams scored on their first three possessions — all touchdowns for Carolina Forest and all field goals for River Bluff. Carolina Forest got a 12-yard TD run by Garcia, a 90-yard kickoff return by Trevor Lavalee and a 60-yard sprint from Legette. The Gators finally found the end zone just before halftime on a 2-yard run by Braden Walker, who finished with 160 yards on 25 carries and two TDs, to cut the deficit to 21-16.
"Even though we were ahead at halftime, we really didn't have the ball much in the first half," Morris said. "We wanted to come out and control the football in the second half."
After Walker's second TD put the Gators on top 22-21 early in the third period, the Panthers put together their most methodical drive of the night to recapture the lead 29-22 and seize control of the contest.