DURHAM — Just like a well-oiled machine, the East Nicolaus High football team needs some fine-tuning every now and then to keep the Spartans at their best.
After 20 straight wins, a Mid-Valley League title, a Northern Section Division IV title and a CIF State Division VI-AA State championship, the Spartans have acquired several key parts to their machine over the last two seasons.
But one part of the machine that can't be overlooked is experience. Playing in big games over the last three years, the Spartans have found themselves in myriad situations they've had to work through to attain the success they've had.
On Friday night in their biggest game of the season with an MVL title and chance at a perfect 10-0 record on the line, that big-game experience came to be the biggest boost for the Spartans.
After two early turnovers and an offense that was struggling to find some consistency, the Spartans found themselves tied 0-0 with Durham with less than a minute left in the first half.
That's when the experience factor kicked in for the Spartans as they scored two touchdowns in a span of 44 seconds to help turn the momentum in their favor to create some breathing room before pulling away in the second half for a 36-3 win.
"We had a little bit of a slow start on offense at the start and it just came down to our team making a few adjustments against a good football team in Durham," said East Nicolaus coach Travis Barker. "We started making some plays in the final minute of the first half, and once we got the machine rolling, the boys knuckled down and did what they needed to do to get the win."
East Nicolaus (10-0, 5-0 MVL) got a big stop from its defense on the first drive of the game as the Trojans were able to get the ball down in the red zone. After failing on a third-down play, the Trojans' attempt at a 37-yard field goal was blocked to keep the game scoreless.
The Spartans struggled on offense as quarterback S.J. Brown threw two interceptions to stall drives deep inside Durham territory.
After forcing a Durham punt late in the first half, the Spartans found themselves with the ball at the Trojan 38-yard line with 49 seconds left. Two plays later, Brown scrambled to his right and found a wide-open Dominic Morse in stride for a 35-yard touchdown reception. Nolan Goyet added the 2-point conversion and the Spartans led 8-0.
Thanks to a personal foul penalty against Durham on the touchdown play, East Nicolaus capitalized by using an onside kick that bounced off a Durham player before being recovered by the Spartans.
Utilizing their timeouts and careful play calling, the Spartans marched down the field and took advantage of a Durham pass interference call in the end zone that helped set up the ensuing play as Brown scrambled in the pocket before finding a wide-open Corey Taylor for a 5-yard touchdown. Goyet added another 2-point conversion and the Spartans found themselves with a 16-0 lead going into halftime.
"We definitely felt we had the capability to score in the final minute," Morse said. "Our offensive line stepped up and made big holes to get us in a good position to score. S.J. and I have a good connection out on the field and he found me on the run for a great pass to get us on the board."
"It was incredible to watch what happened over the final minute," Barker said. "If you go into halftime tied 0-0, it's a whole different game, but great players stepped up and made plays and I think they realized the importance of that moment. It made a big difference on the rest of the game."
Goyet had a 1-yard score to push the lead to 22-0 late in the third quarter.
Durham (8-2, 4-1) finally got on the scoreboard with 24 seconds left in the third as Mason Davis kicked a 25-yard field goal to break up the shutout and make it 22-3. But four drives that stalled inside the red zone didn't help the Trojans in their attempt to get back into the game.
Brown led the East Nicolaus offense down the field on their next two drives, scoring on a 15-yard scamper on a fourth-and-10 and helped set up another scoring drive with a 56-yard run that set up a Goyet 10-yard run that put the game out of reach at 36-3 midway through the fourth quarter.
Goyet finished with 16 carries for 108 yards, two touchdowns and three 2-point conversions, and Brown added 18 carries for 160 yards and a touchdown while going 9 for 13 with 131 yards and two touchdowns and two interceptions to lead the Spartans.
Now, the Spartans will await their playoff seeding from the Northern Section today. They are in perfect position to get the one-seed and have home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
For seniors like Goyet, the ability to continue playing football with the team is more than they could ask for. But the real work begins now, he said, with an eye on trying to reach the top of the mountain as the Spartans did last season by taking one step at a time.
"We just have to find a way to keep things rolling from here," Goyet said. "It's a new season now and everyone is 0-0. We have a goal in mind of working our way back to where we were last season and we've got to work hard to get that done."
CONTACT Sports Reporter Kevin Scannell at 749-4789