Brint Russell’s debut as Newton-Conover head football coach was memorable — for all the wrong reasons.
The Red Devils’ defense struggled, giving up 510 total yards, including 351 passing from East Lincoln quarterback Garrett Young, as the Mustangs went on to win in Denver, 35-21.
“We had a hard time tonight with the run and pass, and the balance they had,” Russell said. “I thought we did a decent job of defending the run. We had some opportunities to make some plays and left some plays on the field in the secondary, but overall, we’ll come to work Monday and get better.”
While 169 of East Lincoln's 290 yards in the first half were gained through the air by Young, the Mustangs had all of their scoring success on the ground.
The Mustangs (1-0) recorded three rushing touchdowns in the half, including a 32-yard run by Damisho Finandis and an 8-yard run by Marquis Pharr in the first quarter.
"They do a good job of setting up a pass that looks like a draw," Russell said. "They do a good job of disguising their scheme to make it give your defensive players crossed signals in terms of pass or run. They are just well balanced and do a good job with the scheme that they run."
Newton-Conover (0-1) rode on the shoulders of senior quarterback Kevin Cline in the first half. He rushed 10 times in the half for 60 yards and both first-half scores for the Red Devils, including a fourth and short one-yard touchdown punch in.
After trailing 14-7, the Red Devils didn't have a chance to tie after giving the ball back to the Mustangs on a Marquis Pope fumble during the ensuing kickoff.
The turnover eventually led to a Domonique Smith 8-yard touchdown run for East Lincoln in the second quarter.
"On the kickoff, (Marquis) just didn't have the ball secured properly and gave up a fumble," Russell said.
After Cline's second touchdown run, the Mustangs carried a 21-14 lead into the halftime break with the Red Devils awaiting control of the football to start the second half.
Newton-Conover drove into East Lincoln territory in the third quarter looking for the tying score, but the team's second turnover — a fumbled pitch by Cline to running back Matt Coulter — cost the Red Devils another opportunity.
"That was a poor pitch-path relationship," Russell said. "(Cline) probably shouldn't have pitched it, but that's what he is taught to do. It was the running back's fault for being in the poor pitch-path relationship."
While the Red Devils continued to struggle holding onto the ball, Young and the Mustang offense continued to spread the offense around through the air and on the ground.
"They throw the ball so much that they force us into a nickel and dime situation where you've got five and six defensive backs on the football field," Russell said. "When you have five and six defensive backs on the football field, those defensive backs have to defend the pass and also come up to defend the run. It's hard because you are reading the (offensive) line. Their line does a good job of coming off low. It looks like a run read, you suck up and they throw it over your head."
Following a scoreless third quarter where the teams traded possessions, a high punt by East Lincoln set up Newton-Conover with a short field to work with, but it could not muster enough offense to score any points.
"We had a short field situation," Russell said. "We could have capitalized on that. We maybe got a little too cute offensively. We weren't able to capitalize and move the ball like we had in the first half. Nonetheless, hats off to East Lincoln. They did a great job tonight. They are a good football program."
On the ensuing Mustang possession, a 41-yard Pharr run for a touchdown with 8:06 to go in the game was negated by a block in the back call, but the Mustangs eventually put the ball in the end zone with a one-yard plunge by fullback Scott McMichael.
East Lincoln closed out its scoring in the game three minutes later with a 34-yard touchdown pass from Young to receiver Chaz Surratt.
Young finished the contest completing 27-of-35 passes for 351 yards and a touchdown. He also rushed five times for 32 yards.
"He is a great kid. He is a phenomenal kid," Russell said of Young. "He came up to me after the game. I have nothing, but praise. He is exactly what you are looking for out of a leader. I'm very impressed with that young man. He has a good arm. He has good vision. He makes audibles. He puts them in the right spots. He is the type of kid that could run any type of offense. In the offense he is in with the weapons he has around him, he did a darn good job of getting that ball spread out tonight. He is the largest reason they are as effective as they are."
The Red Devils continued to press on until the very last buzzer. Cline scored his third rushing touchdown on a one-yard keeper with 51 seconds left, finishing the game with 120 rushing yards and all three Newton-Conover touchdowns.
"Kevin did a great job," Russell said. "They were playing more of a prevent-style defense and had a three-score cushion. They backed off a little bit, and we took advantage of it."
The Red Devils try to bounce back at home this Friday night when they host rival Hickory (0-1) at Gurley Stadium.
"That is a good football team we just played," Russell said. "They are going to make some noise this year. I felt like we played a good football game except for a few key turnovers and a couple of big plays."