Sussex Central wins semifinal thriller: TD pass with 5 seconds left nips Smyrna 38-34

Skyler McVicker of Sussex Central gets behind the Smyrna secondary to haul in a long pass for a TD in the 2nd quarter. Special to the Delaware State News/Gary Emeigh

SMYRNA — With the ball at the Smyrna High 15-yard line and just seconds left on the clock, Sussex Central High coach John Wells’ plan was three shots at the end zone, then a field goal if it came to fourth down.

The Golden Knights trailed by two and had a play for this scenario. And Wells kept calling it until it worked.

Sussex Central ran three quick fades in a row, before Chase Boyle snagged the third one in the corner of the end zone with five seconds left.

Zimir Gardner’s 15-yard toss to Boyle capped an instant classic state semifinal as the Golden Knights knocked off top-seeded Smyrna 38-34 on Friday night in the Division I state football tournament.

“Honestly I wasn’t prepared for him to call it three times in a row,” Boyle said. “That just shows me he has a lot of confidence in me.”

Phillip Stratton of Sussex Central rushes for a gain in the first half against Smyrna.

Sussex Central, the tournament’s fourth seed, advanced to the state championship for the second time in the last three years. The Golden Knights will face the winner of today’s contest between No. 2 Middletown and No. 3 St. Georges next weekend at a time and place to be determined.

Smyrna, which entered Friday undefeated, ended its season at 6-1 overall.

The Eagles, who trailed all night, looked to have completed a stunning comeback of their own minutes earlier.

After Smyrna forced a turnover on downs with a stuff on fourth-and-inches, Aidan Sanchez connected with Devin Smith for a 28-yard touchdown. It gave Smyrna its first and only lead of the game at 34-32 with 1:54 remaining.

That turned out to be too much time for Sussex Central.

“I knew we had plenty of time,” Gardner said. “Our offense was moving the whole game. We had to play smart, get out of bounds and once we had a chance like we did at the end of the game, it was there.”

Smyrna quarterback Aldan Sanchez looks for an open receiver late in the 2nd quarter.

Sussex Central started at its own 24 and began the drive with two incompletions. In a sign of things to come, Gardner picked out Boyle near the sideline for a 12-yard gain and the Golden Knights’ first first down of the drive.

The Golden Knights earned another first down with some rushes before Gardner brought them down to the Smyrna 30 on a 19-yard throw to Sean McGee. A penalty for defensive pass interference pushed Sussex Central all the way to the 15.

It was a steady diet of Boyle fades to the corner from there. The first two throws by Gardner were slightly off target but the third was right on the money.

“He knows where I like it and knows I can jump,” Boyle said. “He put it right on me.”

Smyrna had one final chance on the ensuing kickoff but Skyler McVicker made a lunging tackle from behind after three laterals to set off a Sussex Central celebration.

“We didn’t want to get in a shootout with them,” Wells said. “It wasn’t the gameplan. It ended up being what happened. … We wanted to shorten the game, but I probably called more passes tonight than any game all year, which is unusual. We stepped up and scored some points against a pretty good team.”

Sussex Central led by as much as 14-0 early on and was up 26-14 at halftime. Smyrna would not go away, almost repeating what happened in the regular season when Smyrna won 34-28 in Georgetown with two touchdowns in the final seven minutes.

Sussex Central linebacker Jeremiah Wilson slams into Jermaine Earl of the Eagles for a loss.

Smyrna was missing a few players on Friday, notably top receiver Yamir Knight. Several of the Eagles were visibly upset after the last-second loss.

“I think this was a championship-caliber game,” said Smyrna coach Mike Judy. “We didn’t play particularly well. It’s just one of the things.

“They did great,” he said about his team’s second-half comeback. “We just couldn’t get the stop. We scored with so much time on the clock that it kind of put us in a bind because they’ve got a field goal kicker. Missing the two-pointer at the end kind of put us in a bind. If we make the two-pointer, you don’t worry about the field goal.”

Sanchez rushed for one touchdown and threw for two more, one to Smith and one to Jermaine Earl. Wayne Knight and Dominick Galban provided rushing touchdowns for the Eagles.

Sanchez, playing his final game for Smyrna, passed for 209 yards and was 16-of-25 on his attempts. He added 59 rushing yards on nine carries.

Sussex Central was led on the night by Gardner and Dion Stephens. Stephens, a senior fullback, bruised his way to three rushing touchdowns.

Gardner, who typically isn’t asked to pass much in Sussex Central’s Wing-T offense, was 7-of-12 for 151 yards and three touchdowns. He spread his touchdowns out with one to Boyle, one to McVicker and one to Jeremiah Wilson.

Smyrna’s Dominick Gaiban recovers his own fumble on a kickoff when hit by of Sussex Central’s Skyler McVicker.

“Zimir being a junior, we haven’t really put him in that situation before,” Wells said. “To be able to do that, kudos to our quarterback and our kids. To be able to come back from that is really dramatic and exciting.”

Wilson’s score came 35 seconds before halftime on a drive which was kept alive by a 55-yard rush from P.J. Stratton on third-and-19. Stratton finished with 15 carries for 123 yards while Stephens had 19 carries and 110 yards.

Considering at times this season looked unlikely to happen thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, Wells and company are grateful for another week of practice and one final game.

“We’ve had kids who played in the state championship before who didn’t come out this year,” Wells said. “It’s been a really strange year, we had two or three kids not come out and a couple kids have to quarantine. To be here now, going to the finals, beating Smyrna in Smyrna, it’s pretty remarkable.”