SALEM, Va. — Clintwood traveled to Salem in hopes of bringing home its first Group A football state championship since 1978. But what the Green Wave got into was a Pickle.
Buffalo Gap tailback Pickle Nuckols rushed for 217 yards and scored the game-clinching touchdown and the Bison defeated Clintwood 28-19 in Saturday’s VHSL Group A, Division 1 championship game at Salem City Stadium.
“I’m glad we won. That’s it,” said Nuckols, a 5-foot-10, 195-pound junior who had 15 of his 33 carries in the fourth quarter. That included an eight-play, 50-yard scoring drive that was basically all him and the Bison interior line.
Nuckols capped that series with a 10-yard touchdown run that put Buffalo Gap (14-0) ahead 28-13 with 1:56 remaining to play.
“It was Pickle Time,” explained Bison coach Rob Maxwell. “The O-line did a good job for us and Pic ran through some tackles. He said he was tired right before he scored. I told him if he scored, I was going to take him out. I wasn’t taking him out until then. He scored. He’s a good kid.”
Clintwood (9-5) went down swinging, with quarterback Heath Counts hitting four completions on a two-minute drill covering 68 yards and capped by a 20-yard touchdown pass to tight end Nick Robinson with 14 seconds remaining on the clock. It was Robinson’s second scoring catch of the day. The conversion run attempt by Chris Robinson was stopped short.
Counts finished with 126 yards and two scoring strikes.
Despite the nine-point deficit, Clintwood’s kickoff squad lined up for an onside kick. Derek Robbins, who’d otherwise sat out his regular kicking duties all day due to a knee injury, gave the ball a good, high bounce. Ironically enough, it was Bison placekicker Ian Rosenfeld — who went 4-for-4 on PAT kicks for the day — who recovered the ball to bring down the final curtain.
“(Nuckols) was a horse. He seemed to get stronger as the game went on. Fourth quarter, when they had to have it, that’s where they went,” said Clintwood coach Rick Mullins.
The first quarter was a scoreless stalemate. The Bison got big defensive plays from tackle Todd Talbert and linebacker Josh Wenger en route to shutting down Clintwood’s opening possession. Nuckols and company started moving the chains, getting inside the red zone on a 29-yard run by Joe Workman. But that scoring threat ended when Alec Osborne and Russell Hull sacked Bison quarterback Travis Morris for a 4-yard loss at fourth-and-5.
Defensive back Michael Johnson, who made a slew of good defensive plays for the Bison, returned the favor on Clintwood’s next series when he picked off Counts’ pass, which deflected off the hands of Nick Robinson. The Bison took over and began a 10-play, 65-yard scoring drive capped by Morris’ 3-yard TD run.
That score seemed to energize the Green Wave, who scored on their next two possessions while the defensive unit closed the door on the Bison in between. The first saw a nice 13-yard run by Chris Robinson set up Robbins’ hard- nosed 10-yard scoring run. Devin Elswick’s PAT kick tied it at 7 at 6:53 in the second quarter. The other drive culminated in Counts’ 31-yard TD throw to Nick Robinson. Elswick’s subsequent kick attempt was blocked, leaving the Wave ahead 13-7 with 1:27 until halftime.
Seven snaps later, Morris hit Wenger with a 15-yard TD throw with only three seconds left on the clock. Thanks to Rosenfeld, Buffalo Gap led 14-13 at intermission.
“That was huge. To be able to answer that. That was the point where they mashing us to pieces and we couldn’t stop them. To be able to come back with the offense and ride it and get back, that was real big,” Maxwell said.
Making it even bigger was the 65-yard scoring run Morris parlayed off a terrific fake to Nuckols on Buffalo Gap’s first offensive play of the second half. Morris recorded 99 yards rushing on 10 carries.
“We should’ve stopped them before the half. I think they got the momentum that way. That was a big deal for them,” said Chris Robinson, who led the Green Wave with 129 yards on 21 attempts.
Clintwood got a big defensive play in the third quarter when Trey Meade robbed Morris of a touchdown pass with his pickoff for a touchback. But the Green Wave squandered two promising drives that period. One ended with a fumble on the exchange between Counts and Chris Robinson. The other died at fourth-and-2 at the Buffalo Gap 5 when Ryan Sheridan stopped Chris Robinson at the 4.
From that point onward, it was Pickle Time.
“We told our guys Monday that we couldn’t have turnovers and we had two. One of them, the fumble in the second half, hurt us. It took away from momentum. And getting down on the goal line and not scoring ... we had a shot at the end zone to make a play and we didn’t make it,” said Mullins, who loses only four seniors from his state runner-up squad.
“I’d love to be back here, but a lot has to be done between now and then,” he added. “A lot of hard work.”