The South Effingham Mustangs made a statement early in the game, then another, and kept making them until they had a statement win in their season opener.
After making a fourth-down stop on the game’s first series, the Mustangs scored on their first offensive play of the season and went on to beat South Carolina power Bluffton 23-20 Friday at The Corral.
"It’s huge for our kids," said SEHS head coach Donnie Revell. "I don’t think a lot of people gave us a lot of chances to be able to beat them. We never could relax, we could never get to a point we thought the game was over, and I’m proud of my kids because they didn’t quit."
When the two teams met in last year’s season opener, Bluffton scored on its opening possession. This time was different.
Facing fourth-and-4 on the South Effingham 47-yard line, Bluffton (1-1) ran a fake punt. Jawara Middleton took a handoff but was stopped two yards short of a first down by SEHS defensive end Hunter Dean.
Then it was the Mustangs’ turn to try a trick play — and theirs worked. Quarterback Tyler Pullum threw a backward pass to wide receiver Tyler Hagan, who then threw downfield to a wide-open Jake Elliott down the left side for a 55-yard touchdown.
Revell was confident his team could run the play at some point, to take advantage of the 6-foot-7 Hagan’s athletic ability and exploit the speedy Bluffton defense’s pursuit to the ball. New offensive coordinator Bragg Thompson called for it as his first play in his first game at SEHS.
"We know they’re big and fast, and we wanted to take that away on the first play and shock them," Pullum said.
"We didn’t know exactly when, but we thought we had a chance (to execute the play)," Revell said. "With Tyler (Hagan) being such a force, people have to respect him and try to make a play on him, and it worked just like we practiced.
"A lot of times that doesn’t work out," Revell added with a laugh, "but this one did, so it was great."
Eli Pulkinen kicked the extra point for a 7-0 SEHS lead with 8:25 left in the first quarter, and the Mustangs led the rest of the night.
"I wanted us to be on defense first to see what we could do, and that was huge for our kids to stop them on fourth down on a fake punt," Revell said. "Then the offense puts points on the board and that gives the kids confidence that, ‘Hey, we can play with these guys.’"
After throwing for the first touchdown, Hagan became Pullum’s favorite receiver. Pullum completed 10 of 17 passes for 162 yards, with Hagan hauling in six of them for 91 yards.
The pair connected on a couple key plays on the Mustangs’ second touchdown drive. After the teams traded punts and then swapped interceptions, SEHS marched 71 yards to paydirt in 11 plays. Pullum threw an eight-yard completion to Hagan for a first down early in the drive, and three plays later they hooked up for 34 yards down the middle to Bluffton’s 17-yard line.
On third-and-goal from the 5, the Mustangs again ran a play that left a receiver wide open for a touchdown. Pullum rolled left and lofted a pass to tight end Sam Valleroy, who had no one around him in the end zone. The two-point conversion pass failed, but South led 13-0 with 10:34 left in the second quarter.
Bluffton closed the gap to 13-6 on a 6-yard touchdown run by Gerald Roberson, and SEHS answered with Patrick Brown’s 21-yard scoring run. Brown carried three times for the final 30 yards of the five-play, 52-yard drive, and Pulkinen tacked on the extra point for a 20-6 South lead just 1:25 before halftime.
However, Bluffton needed just 15 seconds to respond, as Middleton returned the ensuing kickoff for a touchdown. After the Mustangs were penalized twice for kicking out of bounds, Middleton fielded the third attempt and raced 80 yards to pull the Bobcats within 20-12 at the half.
Following a scoreless third quarter, Pulkinen kicked a 20-yard field goal with 7:55 remaining in the game. That proved to be the winning margin after Roberson scored on a 12-yard run and caught a two-point conversion pass from Alex Davis to trim Bluffton’s deficit to 23-20 with 6:09 to play.
The Mustangs chewed nearly four minutes off the clock, highlighted by Taylor Donavan’s 44-yard catch and run off a pass from Pullum on third-and-12. The drive stalled, though, and Bluffton got the ball back at its own 20 with 2:16 remaining.
Sophomore linebacker Kareem Taylor, in his first high school start, intercepted Davis’ pass on second down to seal the win for the Mustangs. Taylor made a leaping grab at the 35-yard line and returned it to the Bluffton 3 as the SEHS sideline and stands erupted.
"I dropped back and read it, and the quarterback looked right at me," Taylor said. "I knew they were going to throw the ball because they were down, and I just had to make a play."
The Mustangs finished with 302 yards in their first game employing Thompson’s up-tempo, no-huddle offense, including 217 passing.
"I have to give it to my offensive line," Pullum said. "We just moved the ball the whole night. Everything was clicking."
Brown added 54 tough yards on 16 carries. Nick Reno carried nine times for 21 yards, and Elliott rushed for 18 yards to three attempts to go with his 55-yard touchdown reception. Donavan tallied 50 yards on two catches, and Valleroy had two for 21 yards.
"Coach Bragg did a great job with the offense all night," Revell said. "He ran some great plays, and of course that was his call on the first play of the game, and it worked out. You can’t ask for a whole lot more than that."
South Effingham will host Jenkins (1-0-1) on Friday at 7:30 p.m. at The Corral.