No. 5 Dunbar looked unstoppable at times in the early minutes of Saturday’s Class 1A state semifinal football game. The Poets, led by 2,000-yard rusher Andre Brandon, gashed out large chunks of yardage against Douglass of Prince George’s County, and stood like a brick wall on defense.
The defending state champions seemed primed for a return to Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium. Then came the miscues.
There were poor snaps from center, dropped passes by wide-open receivers and, most uncharacteristically, penalty after mind-numbing penalty. On a cold, rainy day when the East Baltimore school could’ve celebrated its return to the state title game, it instead walked away from Poly with an untimely end to an otherwise stellar season, falling to the Eagles, 20-6.
“In state semifinal games, you’ve got to take advantage of your opportunities,” Dunbar coach Lawrence Smith said. “You cannot lose opportunities, and that’s exactly what happened. Quarterbacks couldn’t get the balls clean. A lot of fumbles off the snap. Things like that happen in this type of weather, but you’ve got to deal with the elements.”
Case in point, Dunbar’s first possession of the day, when between 15-yard runs by Brandon (18 carries for 99 yards) came a fumbled snap and 15-yard personal foul penalty. A false start then left the Poets at third and 23 at their own 43 before a long third-down pass slipped through the fingers of receiver Malik McCormick, who had worked himself open deep in Douglass territory.
“We fell behind the chains, and that really messed us up,” said Brandon, who entered the day with 1,934 yards rushing. “That’s what really gave them confidence.”
“If we catch that first touchdown pass, it’s a different game,” Smith said.
The loss snapped a 23-game win streak for Dunbar (11-1), which allowed just eight fewer points on Saturday than it had in 11 previous games combined this season. Douglass (8-4), meanwhile, advances to Saturday’s Class 1A final, where it will face Fort Hill, which topped Havre de Grace, 43-6, in the other semifinal.
The crushing blow for Dunbar came with 6 minutes left.
After the Poets twice failed to cash in on drives deep in Douglass territory in the second half – including a 52-yard touchdown run by Brandon negated by an illegal formation penalty – the Eagles vaulted into the lead. Seldom-used running back Geo-di Tolbert, making his first carry of the day, busted through the line and ran over two defenders on his way to a 66-yard touchdown run. When teammate Zavier Price scored on the 2-point conversion, Douglass had a 14-6 lead.
“I saw the opportunity. I haven’t played much running back all year, but my mindset was if I got the ball I was going to score,” Tolbert said. “I got some space and that was all… We were the underdogs, but we gained the momentum and just kept going from there.”
Dunbar, which got its lone score on a 2-yard run by Brandon to tie the game at 6-6 with 2:10 left in the half, couldn’t recover. The longer the Eagles remained in the game, the more confident they appeared, and the stingier their defense became.
“We just felt like if we could put Dunbar in a stressful situation – something they hadn’t been in before –
if we could keep it like that for the majority of the game, we’d be in really good shape,” Douglass coach J.C. Pinkney said.
The Eagles then sealed the win on their next drive, when on a fourth and 1 with 1:15 left, Price burst through the line and sprinted 60 yards for the final margin.
On a day when quarterbacks Derrick Dunn and Lamar Simpson combined for just 35 yards passing, Dunbar simply couldn’t muster enough offense to make up for its mistakes.
“We still ran the ball really good, but we become one-dimensional when we’re not able to throw the ball the way we like,” Smith said. “In this type of weather, this type of cold, we became a one-dimensional ballclub.”
Still, Smith said he was proud of his team’s accomplishments this season, including seven shutout wins. For a team that was shooting for its ninth state title in 15 years, however, anything but perfection seems hard to swallow.
“We accomplished a lot. Most programs, this would still be elation,” Smith said. “One thing about us, we’ve done so much that people get used to us winning state championships. But it’s still hats off to my squad and my team for doing what they did.”
Class 1A semifinals
Douglass-PG 20, Dunbar 6
Douglass; 6; 0; 0; 14; -; 20
Dunbar; 0; 6; 0; 0; -; 6
Do — Dawson 6 pass from Harding (Run failed)
Du -Brandon 2 run (Run failed)
Do — Tolbert 66 run (Price run)
Do — Price 60 run (Run failed)