ST. PAULS — St. Pauls High School ran out of fireworks on Friday night during its football game against West Bladen.
The Bulldogs can blame — or thank — senior quarterback Noah Wheeler, who accounted for a career-high seven touchdowns in St. Pauls’ 55-28 win over the visiting Knights.
“We played poorly,” West Bladen coach Kris Williams said. “We shot ourselves in the foot early — they scored first, recovered an on-sides kick (and) scored again.
“We finally get to run an offensive play and we fumble,” he added. “They recover (and) their offense scores again — so were behind the eight-ball right out of the gate.”
Wheeler kept the fireworks crew behind the north end zone busy throughout the evening, accounting for five touchdowns in the first half to help the Bulldogs (5-4, 5-2 TRC) take a commanding 41-12 lead into halftime.
Crediting his success to a newfound focus, Wheeler rushed 19 times for 186 yards and threw for 138 yards with an interception.
“Things just slowed down for me,” he said. “I just feel like a whole new quarterback.”
The Bulldogs’ signal-caller did most of his work out of the read option, scoring on runs of 1, 5, 6, 22, 31 and 33 yards. His lone passing touchdown came on a 35-yard score to Caleb Inman in the first half.
“Noah’s playing within the system now. He’s not trying to force anything,” said St. Pauls coach Ernest King. “At the beginning of the year, he tried to force a lot of things and it caused a lot of mistakes. We turned around and shrunk the playbook to suit the things he does well. He’s playing unselfish football.”
The Bulldogs racked up 338 yards on the ground, with Inman picking up 76 yards on 14 carries. Marqueise Coleman logged 56 yards on nine carries, finding the end zone on a 3-yard run in the first half.
The potent rushing attack was a welcome sight for King after last week’s close loss to East Bladen.
“We wanted to play 48 minutes of physical football,” he said. “It’s a smash-mouth league. It seems like we’ve become a smash-mouth team as well.”
B.J. Drake was the lone bright spot for West Bladen. The senior running back finished with 141 yards on 14 carries and three touchdowns to lead the Knights (4-5, 2-5 TRC), who finished with 14 penalties and had two players ejected.
With an NCHSAA playoff berth in its sights, St. Pauls heads to Whiteville (8-1, 6-1 TRC) next week for its final road game of the regular season. West Bladen will be at home to host conference leader South Columbus (9-0, 7-0 TRC)
“We have to turn around and make some adjustments on defense. Whiteville is a good team,” King said. “Right now, everybody we’re playing is playing for a spot in the playoffs. We tell our guys to not let the game be bigger than they are and to play hard football for 48 minutes.”
And Wheeler hopes to keep bringing the fireworks as the games get bigger.
“We’re focused on getting in the playoffs. We had something on our back from last week and we had to get that off,” he said. “We wanted to come out here and do some work.”
Rodd Baxley can be reached at 910-416-5182. Follow him on Twitter @RoddBaxley.