And then there were two.
This Saturday, the DIAA Division I Football State Championship will be decided when Sussex Central clashes with Salesianum.
Sussex Central and Salesianum both took the long way to the state final, needing to win twice to keep their championship hopes alive; Salesianum crawled from the No. 5 seed, winning two road games to advance, while the No. 3 seeded Golden Knights took care of business in the opening round before winning in dramatic fashion in the semis over No. 2 Dover on Friday night.
Recap: Golden Knights comeback to stun Senators
Sussex Central capped off a dramatic comeback with a last second score to shock the Dover Senators, 21-20 Friday night, advancing to the DIAA Division I Football State Championship Game.
The Golden Knights trailed at the halftime break, but scored 13 unanswered points in the second half, including the go-ahead score with under a minute to go in the fourth quarter.
Dover would get the scoring started Friday night when Jordan Magee found Javon Peace for a 69-yard touchdown; Peace would run in the two-point conversion to give the Senators an early 8-0 lead just a few minutes into the game.
Late in the first, Sussex Central countered, ending a scoring drive of their own with an 11-yard touchdown connection from Isaac Barnes to Zion Reed - the Golden Knights would go for two, but failed to convert, still trailing Dover by two, 8-6.
Still leading by two midway through the second quarter, Dover’s defense stepped up to thwart another Golden Knights’ offensive drive thanks to a pick-six interception return for a touchdown from Peace to put the Senators up 14-6.
After another change of possession, Sussex Central forced a three-and-out against Dover’s offense, forcing them to punt. On the punt, Central’s Elijah Moorer broke free from the Dover line tackling the punter in the endzone for safety, cutting the Senators’ lead to just 14-8 heading toward the end of the first half.
Dover would get the ball back before the half ended looking for more points. Magee would once again drive the Senators down the field setting up a scoring drive with a dramatic scramble to the goal line before Peace punched in the sore on the following play. After a failed two-point conversion attempt, Dover held a 20-8 advantage at the break.
Central got the ball to start the second half and promptly moved the ball down the field threatening to cut into the Dover lead right away. However, for the second time on the night Barnes was picked off by Peace, this time in the endzone to stall the Golden Knights’ drive.
Dover would hold their 12-point lead for the majority of the third quarter, but Central began a drive late in the quarter which they finished with a quarterback keeper at the goal line by Barnes to bring the Golden Knights to within five points ending in to the final stanza.
The fourth quarter was more of the same, with neither offense able to crack the others defense.
With less than two minutes to go, Sussex Central’s offense would have one more shot to complete the comeback in what would be the final drive of the game.
Central had cracked the red zone with just over a minute left, guaranteeing a few shots at the end zone.
A few plays later Barnes took a snap, ran play action before darting to his left only to make a jump throw across his body to the right, leading Domonique Smith perfectly into the endzone for a 13-yard touchdown to give Central the lead with just 31 second remaining in the game.
With little time left, Dover was able to creep near midfield but the Golden Knights held on for the 21-20 victory, earning a spot in next week’s Division I State Championship Game.
Championship Preview: An old school matchup for the DI Championship
For the first time in three seasons a team other than the Smyrna Eagles will hoist the Division I State Championship trophy this season.
After the Eagles put together a three-peat led by an explosive offense and an underrated defense, this year’s champion will be a throwback of sorts.
Both Sussex Central rely heavily on oldschool philosophies to win football games, pounding the ball on the ground on offense while keeping opponents off the scoreboard with smothering defenses.
During the year they weren’t a juggernaut on the offensive averaging 24 points a game in an era where Division I’s top rated offenses averaged in the 30s and 40s. Though, backed by a defense that allowed just over 10 points a game, Salllies’ offense was able to impose their will on the ground led by Andrew Watkins in the backfield who scored all three of their touchdowns in a 20-18 semifinal win over Hodgson Saturday.
Throughout the years Sussex Central has had the same mentality, stifle a team’s offense and then where their defense out with your run game.
This year, the Golden Knights have also passed more, including a beautiful pass play for a last second victory in the semifinals. The impact of Barnes under center allowed the offense to open up as Central averaged 33 points a game this season and may have averaged more, only they didn’t need to. The Golden Knights defense allowed just 41 points total during the regular season, keeping many of their opponents off the scoreboard entirely this season.
On the big stage, they’ve shown they can turn it on when the pressure is on. After handling Appo well in the opening round, Central faced some adversity after giving up 20 first half points to Dover’s no. 1 ranked offense, only to shut them out in the second half, allowing the offense to complete the comeback.
Sussex Central and Salesianum have state tournament history, though this will be the first meeting for the two in the playoffs since 2011, a Salesianum victory.
After missing out on the playoffs all together last season, Salesianum is back in the state title game for the first time since 2015, a loss to Smyrna. Salesianum has made the state championship game six times since 2005, winning it all in 2005, 2006, 2009 and 2013.
Meanwhile, this is the first state title berth for Sussex Central sine they lost to Caesar Rodney back in 2008. Since 2005, the Golden Knights have reached the championship game three times, in 2006, 2007 and 2008.