By Dan Sousa
Viva Loudoun Editor
Aldie (Dec. 9, 2013) – Statistically speaking a football team really shouldn’t win a state semifinal game where they turn the ball over six times. Then again, what Briar Woods High School has achieved the past four years is almost outside of any rational realm as they have won 55 of 59 games and will shoot for a fourth consecutive state title after the Falcons nervy defense stopped North Stafford on a gut-wrenching, 2-point conversion with no time remaining Saturday for a wild 27-25 win at John Champe High School.
Briar Woods (13-1), the 3-time defending 4A state champion, will face defending 6A state champion L.C. Bird (14-0) in Saturday’s 5A state title game — both schools shifted classifications this year in the VHSL’s latest realignment — with a 12:07 p.m. kickoff at the University of Virginia’s Scott Stadium.
There were enough storylines in Saturday’s 5A North championship/state semifinal game — moved to the synthetic turf at Champe because of Friday’s rain and chewed up playing conditions on the Falcons home field — to fill an entire season of programming for Friday Night Lights.
For starters, Briar Woods was facing the only team to beat them this season, a tough Wolverine squad from Garrisonville that had ended the Falcons 32-game winning streak, 19-7, on Sept. 20. The Falcons weren’t calling it revenge as much as redemption, especially for the Falcons proud defensive unit. Manhandled at the line of scrimmage in the regular-season loss, yielding 250 yards rushing and 3 touchdowns to Wolverine senior running back Von Purvis, the Briar Woods defense was brilliant Saturday, holding Purvis to just 73 yards on 25 attempts, less than 3 yards a touch.
But to tell the story of Saturday’s state semifinal we will need to start with the ending, unlike no other, as fans leaving Saturday’s bone-cold contest — played in wind chills hovering around the freezing mark — were no doubt buzzing about the mind-numbing, heart-stopping finish that saw Briar Woods having to halt Purvis to prevent overtime for the second straight week. The Falcons needed the defensive stop despite having a 27-13 lead with less than two minutes left and leading 27-19 with the ball on North Stafford’s 35-yard line with just 6.5 seconds left.
The next two crazy plays are likely to never be seen again back-to-back in prep football.
Facing 4th-and-14, Briar Woods attempted to run the clock out by having senior quarterback Trace McSorley — who had a Shakespearean afternoon with three touchdown passes on 290 yards passing, a TD-saving tackle and forced fumble on defense as well as a career-high four interceptions along with two fumbles lost — run backwards from a shotgun snap. Ideally the game would have ended before McSorley was tackled but in reality he was brought down for a whopping 22-yard loss at the Falcons 41 with two seconds still left.
Given the slimmest of chances, North Stafford seized the opportunity as junior quarterback Jalen Sarrat scrambled out of the pocket on the final play of regulation, rolling to the right toward his own sidelines. He heaved up a Hail Mary pass that was answered as a Falcon defender tipped the ball backwards at about the 10 and it landed in the waiting arms of sophomore Guy Keith who just got the ball across the goal line as he was tackled.
Trailing now 27-25 there was bedlam on the North Stafford sidelines and a stunned silence on Briar Woods’ side as their victory celebration was put on ice.
The Wolverines had all the momentum and had just converted on 4th-and-goal from the Falcons 1 with 1:42 left in the game as senior fullback Joey Syle scored. Briar Woods, however, had weathered the storm of overtime the week before against rival Broad Run, limiting the Spartans to a field goal in the second OT, to win it 37-34 on McSorley’s 1-yard TD, and the Falcons defense rose to the occasion once again with a great line surge that helped stop Purvis at the 1 on a power run to the right side.
And for the second straight week the Falcons bench emptied onto the field to celebrate a win with the clock reading 0:00.
North Stafford (11-3) came into the contest looking to run the ball between the tackles once again against Briar Woods but they found a much-improved, more-confident Falcons defense that crowded the box and dared the Wolverines to throw the ball. Falcon coach Charlie Pierce had set the tone for Saturday’s defensive performance when he addressed the team after the loss to North Stafford in September: “The test of this team,” he said, “is what happens next.”
Junior defensive linemen Bryan Capozzoli, with 10 tackles including two for losses, led a group of Falcons that didn’t have any tackles in the first meeting but combined for 20 tackles, 4 tackles for losses and an interception, Saturday. That group included junior linebacker Dominic Moore, senior defensive lineman Jacob Greeno, junior linebacker Jack Knight and senior linebacker Jack Mercil.
With Capozzoli, Greeno, sophomore defensive end Mark Birmingham, junior defensive lineman Darrell Ramey (3 tackles, 1 assist, 2 sacks, 2 TFL) and others controlling the line of scrimmage, it freed up the linebacker corps led by seniors Chris Larco (10 tackles, 8 assists) and BJ Hinson (2 tackles, 1 assist) and McSorley from safety (7 tackles, 5 assists) and other defensive backs such as seniors Mitch Krisfalusi (7 tackles, 5 assists, 1 TFL), Melvin Holland, Jr. (4 tackles, 3 assists) and Christian Campbell (3 tackles, 2 assists), junior Chris McMillian (2 tackles, 1 assist) and senior Jeremy Bailey (1 tackle) to make the stops.
The tone of the first meeting was set when North Stafford marched 82 yards on 12 plays for a score, with 9 of them running plays by Purvis. Saturday, after the Falcons opened with a 3-and-out, North Stafford took over in great field position at their own 49 and starting marching towards the goal line in what appeared to be a repeat performance by Purvis.
Facing 1st-and-10 from the Falcons 24 after an 8-yard Purvis run, the Falcons defense stepped up. On first down, McSorley and Moore brought down Purvis but only after he surged ahead for 5 yards.
With the ball just inside the Red Zone at the 19, Hinson darted across the line and dragged down Purvis for a 2-yard loss. On 3rd-and-7, McSorley and Capozzoli combined to stop Purvis just shy of the first down marker at the 15. Despite the wind at their back, the Wolverines went for it on fourth down. An early flag thrown on the play would have brought the ball back on a holding call but the Falcons settled, instead, for the ball as Birmingham and Capozzoli gummed up the middle to stop Purvis cold and turn the ball over on downs.
McSorley, the starter for all 55 of the Falcons wins and three state titles over the past four years, went to work and got the Falcons offense going with a 25-yard scramble to the Falcon 34 on 3rd-and-16. On the next play, a simple 6-yard completion to junior Brandon Polk, who missed the first contest between the two teams while recovering from a preseason injury, turned into a 36-yard play as North Stafford was flagged for helmet-to-helmet contact on the tackle and then unsportsmanlike conduct after the whistle.
Briar Woods moved down to the Wolverine 10 with McSorley connecting on crisp passes of 11 and 9 yards to junior Tristan Carter and Holland, Jr. (8 receptions, 97 yards in the game). On 3rd-and-1, McSorley had the first down and more on a keeper but he lost the grip on the football as he struggled for second-effort yardage at the 7 and Wolverine senior Tyler Bailey scooped the ball up and scored on a 92-yard touchdown return.
Leading 6-0 with 1:51 left in the first, the Wolverines missed the extra point after a bad snap. North Stafford had a great opportunity to conjure up two points on the miscue as Syle, the kicker, kept his composure, grabbed the ball off the ground, scrambled around and spotted a receiver open in the back of the end zone — the pass, on target, was dropped.
Briar Woods, going against a stiff wind, was forced to punt into it again after a quick 3-and-out at their own 24 and the Wolverines looked to gain another short field only disaster struck for North Stafford when their punt returned to decided to touch the ball as it was about to go dead near the Falcons sidelines and McMillian recovered for Briar Woods.
Adding to the miscue, North Stafford was flagged for 15 yards at the end of the play and Briar Woods took over at the North Stafford 34 after the march off.
Two plays later, however, McSorley was picked off for the first time on the day by senior Keon Carter. The Vanderbilit-bound McSorley came into the game having thrown more than two interceptions in a game only once in his career and that came in his fourth start as a freshman when Martinsburg WV had three picks in the Falcons 8-7 loss. Since that loss, McSorley has led the team to wins in 53 of 55 games played.
Leading 6-0, and now facing the wind in the second quarter, North Stafford looked to double the advantage as they moved the ball all the way to the Falcon 5. Big plays on the 11-play drive were a 13-yard shovel pass from Sarrat to Syle on 3rd-and-11 and then a 33-yard pass to tight end Christian Gregoreck, who slipped behind the Falcons defense on a good play fake after three straight Purvis runs.
Gregoreck only had open field between him and goal line after hauling in the pass which was hung up in the wind. McSorley, who went for the run fake, hustled back and was able to trip up the Wolverine from behind at the Falcon 9. That play turned into a TD saver after the Falcons defense turned North Stafford’s 2nd-and-goal prospects from the 5 into a 4th-and-goal situation from the 30.
First Moore and Ramey clamped down on Purvis to make it 3rd-and-goal from the 5. On the next play, Ramey appeared to have Sarrat down for a sack, only to have the quarterback twist away and under pressure he threw the ball away and penalized for intentional grounding. The 5-yard mark-off from the spot resulted in a 20-yard loss and a 5-yard penalty before the fourth down snap left the Wolverines at 4th-and-goal from a long ways from the goal line.
Sarrat tried to hit a fade in the back of the end zone on fourth down but Krisfalusi had great positioning and knocked the ball away.
The defensive hold seemed to spark Briar Woods and the Falcons passing game was ready to unfurl with the wind now at their back. Senior Tristan Miller gained six yards on a double reverse from Polk and then 8 more on a pass from McSorley. The speedy Polk, who already has a half dozen offers including from Stanford, and the 6-foot-4 Birmingham didn’t catch any passes in the regular season loss to North Stafford but they were a big part of the gameplan Saturday as Birmingham blew past his coverage towards the post and out-ran the defense for a 56-yard touchdown.
Senior Nick LaFrankie’s point after put Briar Woods ahead, 7-6, with 6:08 left in the first half.
The Briar Woods defense held North Stafford to a 3-and-out and after taking over at their own 38 the Falcons needed just 3 plays to score as Polk ran a go route along the right sidelines and easily scored after his coverage tripped, sailing in for a 55-yard score. The PAT made it 14-6 Briar Woods with 3:28 left in the half.
The Falcons threatened to add to it as McSorley forced a fumble at the Wolverine 40 recovered by Holland, Jr. with 50 seconds left in the half. Two plays later, however, McSorley lost a fumble on a keeper at the Wolverine 38.
Any North Stafford adjustments made at the half to get their run game going against the Falcon defense were neutralized by Briar Woods unveiling a new defense they had installed leading up to the game and not shown in the first half. Capozzoli threw Purvis for a 3-yard loss on the first play of the half and Briar Woods was soon starting 10-play, 65-yard touchdown drive.
Like anything in this game, nothing was straight forward and on the TD drive, Birmingham took a pitch from McSorley and gained 4 yards on a 3rd-and-4 and on the next play a wild toss was recovered by the Falcons for a 5-yard loss. McSorley didn’t let that play ruffle him as on the next snap he drilled a 26-yard pass to Holland, Jr. Polk gained 7 on a jet sweep before McSorley and Holland, Jr. hooked up again, this time for 7. A McSorley keeper brought the ball down to the 14 and on the next play, he hit Carter, who made a sweet catch, for a 14-yard score.
LaFrankie’s PAT made it 21-6 comfortably Briar Woods with 7:41 left in the third.
Briar Woods forced another 3-and-out and the Falcons were at midfield after a 13-yard pass to Carter and 9-yard Polk run when the Wolverine defense made another big play. Senior Jae’Wuan Horton tipped a McSorley pass at the line of scrimmage and the opportunistic Bailey intercepted it and the North Stafford 35 and raced all the way to the Falcon 37 before being tackled by McSorley. On the next play, Mercil intercepted the ball for Briar Woods and returned it 16 yards to the Falcon 46.
Yet another tipped ball, four plays later, was intercepted by North Stafford’s (you guessed it) Bailey who returned it six yards to the North Stafford 31.
Briar Woods defense was undeterred by the turnovers as Krisfalusi crashed in from the corner to stop Purvis for a 1-yard loss on 3rd-and-5 and the Wolverines, down 21-6 late in the third quarter, rolled the dice on 4th-and-6 from their own 35. Sarrat hit Jacob Woodard on a pass that was read by McKnight who made the tackle for a 3-yard loss and turnover on downs.
Looking to make it a 3-TD lead, Briar Woods was inside the Red Zone on the first play of the fourth quarter when another McSorley pass was deflected and this time big 275-pound North Stafford lineman senior Myles Kennedy found himself with the ball at the Wolverine 17.
North Stafford, which hadn’t been able to move the chains all half, decided to take a short cut to the end zone with Sarrat hooking up with senior Andre Hamilton on a 83-yard TD pass on the first play after the interception. Syle’s PAT cut the Briar Woods lead to 21-13 with 11:33 left.
Despite the six turnovers, Briar Woods also had some bounces go their way — such as recovering a Polk fumble on the opening kickoff of the game — and McSorley jumping on a fumble on a pass reception by Tristan Miller on the first play after North Stafford’s big TD combination.
Instead of taking over at the Briar Woods 27, North Stafford was still on defense after McSorley’s recovery and the Falcons made them pay as they moved they ate seven minutes off the clock on a 14-play monster drive. It was running back by committee during this key drive as senior Hunter Ford, McSorley, fullback Larco, junior Anthony Martinez and sophomore Jordan Hinson all took turns carrying the ball.
After a 27-yard clutch 3rd down reception by Holland, Jr, Larco was a battering ram, taking 5 straight handoffs and pushing the ball from the Wolverine 38 to the 13.
On 3rd-and-12, McSorley got just that, 12 yards, on a pass play to Polk to the 3. Martinez forced his way to the 1 on 1st-and-goal and then Hinson nudged in from the 1 for the score with 4:32 left.
There was still plenty of drama left, starting with Briar Woods missing the PAT, to make the lead 27-14, and then the big-play Hamilton returning the ensuing kickoff 52 yards to the Falcons 27.
With 4:10 left, North Stafford needed a quick strike to avoid an onside kick scenario but the Falcons defense dug in and the Wolverines needed nine plays to score with Syle scoring on 4th-and-goal with 1:42 left. In what would amount to a huge play, Briar Woods got a hand on the PAT and blocked it, making it 27-19.
North Stafford ended up kicking off at their own 20 after a 15-yard penalty on the PAT and then jumping offsides on the first kickoff try. The sure-handed Carter curled up on the onside kick at the Wolverine 32.
Briar Woods was seconds short of being able to go into victory formation so McSorley took a 5-yard loss on first down followed by two conservative running plays that left Briar Woods facing 4th-and-14 from the Wolverine 37 with North Stafford using its last time out with 6.5 seconds left.
That cued up the wild finish and a fourth straight regional title banner for Briar Woods — their first at the 5A level.