‘Once in a lifetime’ star Knight shines in Eagles’ title finale

Will Knight of Smyrna fights his way past Middletown defender Nick Johnston for a touchdown in the 2nd half. Special To The Delaware State News/Gary Emeigh

NEWARK — It’s a scene which has repeated itself countless times the last four years.

Will Knight takes the ball, finds a hole and no one catches him.

It happened for the final time in a Smyrna High uniform on Saturday afternoon and it sent the Smyrna sidelines into a state championship celebration.

Knight capped his high school career by leading the Eagles to their third consecutive Division I state championship with a 30-27 win over Middletown.

The star running back, who was already the leading rusher in state history, had three rushing touchdowns and also threw for another.

Smyrna’s Will Knight powers his way through the Middletown defensive line for a 2 point conversion.. Special To The Delaware State News/Gary Emeigh

“That’s a grown man right there,” said Smyrna senior center Ty-Key Moore. “That’s a bad man right there. He’s one of a kind.”

“He’s a once in a lifetime kind of kid,” said Smyrna senior defensive end Hunter Moyer. “I’ve played ball with him since we were eight. He’s been wrecking shop ever since. He’s special. He’s just amazing. Hands down the best football player I’ve ever seen.”

After Debo Williams stopped Middletown on fourth down, the Eagles got the ball back with a 22-20 lead and 2:51 left in the fourth quarter. With the ball in Knight’s hands, Smyrna was hoping to run the clock down.

Knight gave the Eagles a 79-yard rushing touchdown on the first play.

“I knew I couldn’t let my teammates down,” Knight said. “We had to keep on the blueprint, keep grinding and come out on top.”

The touchdown came out of Smyrna’s earthquake formation — a formation the Eagles have made famous over the last three years. Smyrna ran the earthquake almost exclusively in the second half.

The earthquake is a creation from the mind of offensive coordinator Mike Marks. It’s the exact opposite of what Smyrna turned into four years ago.

Smyrna’s Will Knight rushes against Middletown in the second quarter during the Division 1 football finals in Newark. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

When coach Mike Judy took over in the 2014 offseason, he brought on Marks, his friend and fellow teacher at Smyrna, to be the offensive coordinator. Marks quickly transformed the Eagles into an up-tempo team running the spread offense.

But he experimented with the earthquake for two-point conversions and short-yard situations. It features no wide receivers or a quarterback and instead has two or three running backs behind center in a tightly bunched formation. Defensive ends and linebackers come in to act as extra blockers.

Due to how successful Knight was on two-point conversions in 2015, Marks decided to work the formation into his normal playcalling.

“We realized it might be something more than just a two-point play,” Marks said. “Will is the perfect guy to run it. We call it a fistfight in a phone booth. It’s really hard to defend both the spread and the earthquake.”

“Earthquake means no one can stop us,” Knight said “We keep grinding, put everything you got into every inch and you’ll like the results.”

“Coach always says we have to fight in the phone booth,” Moore said. “We get very excited. We expect putdowns every play.”

Smyrna ran a variation of the formation in 2014 when it needed to gain a yard or two. But that had the quarterback behind center and Marks said it was more of a rugby-style setup.

Smyrna’s Will Knight keeps the ball and bulldozes his way for a first down in the 4th quarter.. Special To The Delaware State News/Gary Emeigh

Starting with Knight’s sophomore year in 2015, Marks decided to cut out the middle man and just snap the ball directly to Knight.

“What we found at the end was, if we’re going to do that sort of thing, put it in a running back’s hands and get big bodies on the field. We ran it 2015 and me and my father were talking about running the concept. We realized it was almost automatic on a two-point play. We ran it enough and got good at it enough where it turned into a package.”

The formation takes a lot of ideas from the old double-wing. In the double-wing, though, the quarterback takes the snap, hands off and turns into a blocker. The earthquake is inverted from the double-wing so Knight is always touching the ball. Marks called it a combination between the double-wing and the wildcat formation.

Knight showed off the wildcat aspect of it when he threw a pop pass to Stephen Whaley for 41 yards. The touchdown pass came pulled Smyrna within 20-14 with 3:54 to go in the third quarter.

The next Smyrna drive showed off the smash-mouth style of the earthquake. Knight carried the ball 11 of the 12 plays and his longest gain was nine yards when he scored the go-ahead touchdown.

The drive also featured a conversion on fourth down when Smyrna needed four yards. Knight got them six with a dash to the outside and a stiff-arm on a would-be tackler.

“I’m so lucky to coach that kid,” Marks said. “I’m so lucky to coach all these dudes. They are complete and total warriors. It doesn’t matter how bad the circumstances are, they’re just winners and they continue to win.”

Smyrna went to the earthquake multiple times in the championship last season, also against Middletown, even though it had Nolan Henderson at quarterback. Henderson ended up winning the state’s Offensive Player of the Year award.

Knight scored four touchdowns that day and recorded 234 yards on 34 carries. On Saturday, Knight ended up with 231 yards on 25 carries.

Marks said the switch to earthquake was mainly because of Middletown’s talented secondary. The Cavaliers also defeated Smyrna 35-28 in the opening game of the season, so Smyrna went with a more conservative gameplan.

“It means we’re giving respect to Middletown and the back half of their defense,” he said. “They’re extremely talented on the back half. We felt after we played Week One, our advantage is we’re tougher and more physical. That’s why we work so hard at that formation. It was the best way to win this game. Not many teams we play can cover us on the back end, but Middletown can. Our advantage was up front and we used the earthquake to exploit that.”

For a team who does not play anyone both ways, Smyrna makes an exception for the earthquake.

Moyer and defensive tackle Desmond Wilson, along with linebackers Williams and Diron Accoo, come in when the Eagles run the earthquake. Going to the earthquake so much wore on the few two-way players, but they were going to push through the exhaustion no matter what.

“I was whooped honestly,” Moyer said. “I was tired as can be. But I knew the end result was more important than me taking a break. No matter how bad it burned, no matter how much I couldn’t breathe, whatever was happening, I knew to fight through it.”

Reach staff writer Tim Mastro at tmastro@newszap.com

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