The Dunbar Poets team cheer after holding off the Fort Hill Sentinels during the 2017 MPSSAA Class 1A football State Championship at Navy-Marine Corps Stadium. The Poets prevailed, 30-26. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun Staff)
Dunbar didn’t have the ball nearly as much as Fort Hill in Saturday’s Class 1A state football championship, but with the Poets’ big-play game, that didn’t matter.
Andre Brandon broke the first play from scrimmage for a 68-yard touchdown and Rashad Williams made a leaping interception with just over two minutes left to all but seal a 30-26 victory at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.
The victory gave the No. 7 Poets (12-1) their 10th state championship and their first since 2012 as they denied the Sentinels (12-2) a fifth straight championship, which would’ve set a state tournament record. The Sentinels and Urbana (1998-2001) each have won four straight state titles. It was the fifth playoff win for the Poets over the Sentinels, who have beaten Dunbar only once, in 1997.
“It means a lot,” Dunbar senior quarterback Jared Lewis said of the title. “This has been basically a state rivalry and a tradition, and to lead these guys, well not just me but everybody who led … We’re coming behind a legacy of great players at Dunbar football who’ve competed in this game, and so to pull this through was pretty good.”
Fort Hill had almost twice the time of possession as the Poets, but Dunbar didn’t need lengthy drives. In addition to Brandon’s 68-yard touchdown, Lewis threw touchdown passes of 63, 60 and 87 yards to three different receivers. Those four plays accounted for 278 of the Poets’ 429 yards of total offense.
Lewis, a senior who has thrown for more than 3,000 yards this season, completed seven of 17 passes for 252 yards. He hit Demond Jackson, Raekwon Walker and Ryan Wood with touchdown passes. The Sentinels relied mostly on their downhill running game as Troy Banks ran 35 times for 153 yards and one touchdown.
The game-winning touchdown came with 2:47 left in the third quarter as Lewis hit Wood with a short pass and Wood tiptoed the sideline before racing the rest of the 87 yards to score.
It was the first state football title for a Baltimore-area team since Franklin won the 3A crown in 2013. The Poets spent the past four years in 2A while the Sentinels were winning their four titles in a row. Before dropping down, the Poets won seven 1A titles between 2004 and 2012.
After falling to the Sentinels’ archrival, Allegany, in Cumberland in the season opener, the Poets ended the season with 12 straight wins, tying with No. 1 St. Frances for the Baltimore area’s longest active winning streak.
When Dunbar and Fort Hill kick off Saturday afternoon for the Class 1A state football championship, they will meet for the sixth time in the playoffs — not enough for a true rivalry, but enough to add a little extra edge to the title clash for high school football fans.
Early in the game, the Poets struggled to stop the running game as the Sentinels offensive line repeatedly opened huge holes for Banks, who gained 127 of his yards in the half. In the second half, Banks ran 13 times for just 26 yards.
“We set out to stop the run and that’s what we did,” Poets coach Lawrence Smith said of the second-half plan. “We just stacked the box. We forced them to throw the ball and we knew they couldn’t.”
Said defensive lineman Dwayne Johnson: “We added some people on the line to defend the gaps. They were pulling and stuff and following the guards. We had to cause a pileup so the running back won’t go so far, and then we just went from there.”
Fort Hill did not score in the second half and turned the ball over twice, an early fumble recovered by Brandon and the interception by Williams with 2:13 left. His grab at the Dunbar 33-yard line set up a final Poets drive kept alive by Deon Crews-Harris’ 24 yard rush on third-and-1.
To start the game, the Baltimore City Division I champions needed just 19 seconds to get on the board as Brandon went 68 yards off the first handoff. Lewis hit Jackson for the 2-point conversion and the Poets had an 8-0 lead.
Fort Hill answered on its first possession. Quarterback Logan Johnson hit Brayden Poling with a 21-yard pass and the Sentinels, who have a strong kicking game, went for two points. Braeden Smith caught the conversion pass from Blake Beal to tie the game with 7:46 left in the quarter.
Dunbar’s next possession lasted just four plays before Lewis hit Jackson with a 63-yard touchdown strike. Lewis then ran for the 2-point conversion and a 16-8 Poets lead.
At that point, the two teams had combined for just 13 plays and put 24 points on the board. In the first quarter, Dunbar had the ball for just 1:56 and had gained 131 of its 145 yards of offense on two plays.
The Poets might’ve added more points in the half, but a penalty for roughing the passer wiped out an Alfonzo Graham interception with 3:10 left in the first quarter.
The back-and-forth game continued early in the second quarter as the Sentinels scored first on Poling’s 17-yard run. On a reverse, Poling hit Johnson with the conversion pass to tie.
After the Sentinels stopped Dunbar’s next drive at the Poets’ 4-yard line, a 21-yard punt set up Fort Hil on the 25-yard line. Five plays later, the Sentinels took their first lead, 23-16, on Banks’ 4-yard run with 8:16 left in the second quarter.
On Dunbar’s next drive, Fort Hill lost an interception to a blind-side block and Lewis answered with another big play. Under pressure, he spotted Walker open in the center of the field at about the 30-yard line. Walker caught the pass and finished off the 60-yard touchdown. Lewis’ conversion pass failed and Fort Hill held onto the lead, 23-22.
Dunbar’s defense came to life late during the next Sentinels drive, pushing them back to fourth-and-25 from the Poets’ 30, but Danny King nailed a 46-yard field goal to send Fort Hill into halftime with a 26-22 lead.