THIS ONE'S FOR YOU: Blue Devils rise to the occasion in season-opening win over rival Bandys on Thursday night

Blue Devils junior quarterback Ethan Rhodes (12) looking to connect downfield in Thursday’s road win. (O-N-E photo by Michelle Thompson)Maiden senior receiver Brennan James (1) attempting to stiff arm Bandys’ Keelan Henrickson (5). (O-N-E photo by Michelle Thompson)
Marcus Smith
Sports Editor

Prep football is officially back, and what a way to kick-off the 2020-21 season than to have an opening battle between the Maiden Blue Devils and Bandys Trojans.

These programs have butted heads time-and-time again, and the season opener on Thursday night was the 68th meeting between the two hated rivals.

A significant figure in the long-standing rivalry is former Blue Devils head coach and Hall of Famer Tom Brown.

Brown, who passed away due to health problems on Thursday morning at 77-years-old, competed in numerous battles with Bandys during his tenure and also obtained 330 career wins at Maiden in 35 years as the program's leader (the NC record for wins by a football coach at a single school).

With his legacy weighing on their minds, the Blue Devils (1-0) came onto Randy Lowman Field, in enemy territory, and prepared for action.

The Blue Devils' offense was a bit shaky in the first half, but it finally found its groove in the third quarter leading to a 21-7 victory over the Trojans (0-1). Maiden now leads the rivalry series, 51-14-3.

“We just talked about his [Brown] legacy...and what it meant to us as coaches because a lot of our coaches either played for him, coached with him or played for him and coached with him,” said Blue Devils head coach Will Byrne. “So, we wanted to get that out of the way after the pre-game meal and kind of focus on us, but I related it by talking about, 'what is our legacy going to be with this team?' I think they handled it well, and we beat a good football team tonight.”

It was a stalemate offensively to open the game as neither team got on the board in the first quarter.

Nevertheless, the Blue Devils moved its way onto the scoreboard early in the second quarter following a 13-play drive that began at the tail-end of the first quarter. Following a 17-yard reception by senior receiver Brennan James on 3rd and 7 on Bandys' 44-yard line, junior quarterback Ethan Rhodes slung another to sophomore wide-out Chris Culliver for 12 more yards to get into the red zone.

Culliver – the former Bandys athlete – collected 38 yards on four receptions in the first half. Rhodes went 15-of-23 for 211 passing yards in the first half. While, James obtained 110 yards on six receptions in the opening half.

Then, Rhodes connected to another sophomore via receiver Jacob Sigmon for his first varsity touchdown grab of his career on a 15-yarder. Sigmon finished with 37 yards on three receptions, all coming in the second quarter.

Kicker Carson Foard botched the point-after attempt (PAT) which turned into a failed 2-point conversion with 9:28 left in the first half. The Blue Devils led, 6-0, at the time.

Defensively, Maiden kept its poise throughout the match-up, and forced three 4-and-outs in the first half before allowing the Trojans to get on the board and take its only lead of the game late in the second quarter.

Aaron Lefevers led the Blue Devils with seven total tackles while Cameron Day followed with five total tackles (three tackles for a loss).

The Trojans began its 7-play scoring drive on the Blue Devils' 27-yard line following a fumble recovery by senior defensive back Josh Clements with 3:54 remaining in the half.

On the first play, sophomore quarterback Trey Shearer earned his way to the 15-yard line on a 12-yard carry. Senior running back Isaiah Gilchrist (who finished with 35 rushing yards on 12 carries) moved the ball to the 8-yard line on a 7-yard run that brought them within striking distance.

Junior quarterback/tailback Parker DeHart followed with a 4-yard gain on the ground that put his team inside the 5-yard line.

“I feel, to us, Maiden's our rivals,” said Bandys 1st-year head coach Jason Barnes. “We want to perform great against them, but at the same time, there's so many things – special teams – we're not doing great on right now, and then there's other things we're not doing great on. We just got to fix that, but I feel like we can grow and do much, much better as a team as the weeks go.

“The thing is to try to sustain a few drives because...obviously keeping their offense off the field is going to be our best defense. They got guys that can do some things and go the distance..It's not necessarily all about us scoring, but it's about us keeping the ball.”

It was a no-go on the first three downs, but on 4th and goal DeHart connected on a pass to the right edge of the end zone to junior receiver Parker Styborski – who managed to keep his feet inbounds for the 5-yard TD. The PAT was good, and the Trojans led, 7-6, with 1:04 left in the half. Styborski finished this contest with two catches for 38 yards, along with six total tackles.

“There was a lot of emotions going on today,” said Maiden head coach Will Byrne. “I think I let that filter over to the team a bit, and I think it made it (hard) offensively – defensively we played great of course – and that's on me. I thought we played a little bit tight. Ethan [Rhodes] missed some open people. He knows it and we made a couple of adjustments in the run-game to get a little bit going in the run-game.”

Trailing 7-6 coming out the break, Maiden began to heat up on offense led by the Rhodes-James connection in the third quarter.

After the Blue Devil defense forced a quick 3-and-out on Bandys opening possession of the quarter, it began its 5-play scoring drive on the Trojans' 16-yard line.

Senior running back Amarion Craig – who obtained only four yards on six carries in the first half – collected 14 yards on two carries during this drive to put Maiden on the Bandys 2-yard line. Craig earned 53 yards on eight carries in the second half, as well as two total tackles and a 15-yard reception in the first quarter.

On 3rd and goal, Rhodes then charged his way into the end zone behind his blockers up the middle for a QB sneak play. A timely 2-point conversion run by James gave the Blue Devils the 14-6 lead with 9:04 left in the third.

After another quick 3-and-out for the Trojans, Maiden got back into the swing of things offensively. Starting its 3-play drive from the Trojans' 47-yard line, Rhodes tried to get one over on the defense with a run, but he was tackled for a loss by linebacker Terick Bumgarner (who finished with four total tackles, as well as a sack).

On 2nd and 13, Rhodes connected on a 7-yard pass to his primary target James (who finished with 159 yards on eight receptions). Furthermore, Rhodes found his man once gain on the next play for a 42-yard TD with 4:56 left in the third quarter. The PAT by Foard was good, and the Blue Devils pushed out ahead, 21-7.

Looking to just maintain its lead in the final frame, Maiden decided to run the ball more, but Rhodes did get one more big-time throw. Starting from its own 12-yard line with 10:59 left in the contest, a penalty was called on the road team that sent them back to the 5-yard line for a 1st and 17.

Not afraid to throw it even though it was deep into its own territory, Rhodes delivered a bomb to Culliver for 42 yards with the crowd going wild. Culliver finished with 80 yards on five receptions in his debut with the Blue Devils.

Rhodes finished the game going 18-of-30 (60 percent) for 302 yards, two passing TDs and one rushing TD.

“We really didn't make any adjustment in the pass-game. We started hitting people that were open,” said Byrne. “We had people open in the first half. We were just missing them...[Rhodes] made plays, and made big throws in the second-half when we needed them, and just a great job on defense overall the whole game.”

Getting in on the action in the fourth quarter for Maiden was running back Ben Gibbs as he collected four yards on two carries. While, Craig earned 39 of his 67 total rushing yards in the final quarter.

With this game in favor of the Blue Devils, Culliver put the icing on the cake in the final minute as he garnered a big interception that he almost brought home for a pick-6 barring a penalty call on his squad.

Following the road victory, Maiden will compete in its season opener on Friday, March 5, inside of Thomas E. Brown Stadium against West Lincoln set for a 7 p.m. kick-off. As for Bandys, it will travel to Newton-Conover (0-1) for a conference match-up inside of Gurley Stadium at 7 p.m. on Friday, March 5.