WHEELING, W.Va. — Martinsburg can begin the drive for five.
Bolstered by only the third safety in a Class AAA championship game since 1979, the No. 2-ranked Bulldogs won their record fourth straight Class AAA title by edging top-seeded Huntington 9-7 in a defensive battle at the West Virginia Super Six.
With the finalists combining for a mere 186 yards, Martinsburg (13-1) used its special teams to break through in the second quarter—senior Tyler Miller blocking a Huntington punt that bounced out of the back of the end zone for a safety.
“I knew that play would have a big impact, because it put us up two points,” Miller said. “I saw the hole open up and I just went all out to block it. This was my first blocked punt this year. I’ve been really close before. It felt amazing to finally get it on this stage.”
The play by Miller—who also made a team-high seven tackles—ultimately proved to be the difference as neither team generated much offense.
“We put that (punt block scheme) in this week and thought we may be able to do something with it,” said Martinsburg head coach Dave Walker. “Coach (Britt) Sherman, our special teams coordinator, came up with it, and it was huge.”
Martinsburg’s lone touchdown came with three minutes before half as quarterback Malique Watkins connected with Troy Walker for a 5-yard touchdown pass.
Earlier in the drive, Watkins found Tory Lee for a 25-yard gain that moved the ball into the red zone.
“That whole drive started with the long ball, prayer ball to Tory,” Watkins said. “It started with that ball that he caught, and then Troy and I connected in the end zone. We just did what we had to do.
“It feels so good. Four years in a row, that’s unheard of. They haven’t (done that) in Class AAA,” Watkins said. “It feels so good. We’ll see if they can get five next year. I’ll come back and watch.”
Martinsburg led 9-0 at the half, holding Huntington to just 25 yards on 20 plays.
Things changed, though, after the break.
With Huntington’s defense holding the Bulldogs to minus-31 yards in the second half, the Highlanders (13-1) found momentum on the ground behind running backs Charles Crawford (61 yards on 16 carries) and Paden Christian (54 yards on 15 carries).
The Highlanders finally got on the board in the fourth period, using a 16-play, 80-yard drive that consumed 8:25 before Christian’s 2-yard run closed the gap to 9-7 with 5:51 to go.
“We’ve been down a couple of times this year at the half,” said Huntington coach Billy Seals. “Our kids believe in what we do. It was just an attitude thing, and I’m proud of my kids.”
The Highlanders caught a break with just under three minutes left when Martinsburg muffed a punt and Huntington recovered at Bulldogs’ 42. Martinsburg’s defense, however, sacked Clark Wilson on third down, setting up a fourth-and-25 with 1:29 left.
Wilson’s ensuing fourth-down pass fell to the turf as the Bulldogs sealed the win.
“We thought when we recovered that fumble on the punt there that we could get into field-goal range, but unfortunately we didn’t,” Seals said.
Martinsburg finished the game with 83 yards to Huntington’s 103. Bulldogs quarterback Malique Watkins, the game’s MVP, gained only 21 yards on 22 carries and was 3-of-8 passing for 39 yards and a touchdown.
The teams combined for 17 penalties as well (10 on Huntington, 7 on Martinsburg).
“We tried to give it away toward the end, but it was two great teams going at it and it came down to the wire,” Walker said. “I’m just very happy and very blessed that we were able to come out on top.”
Walker wasn’t interested in talking about the possibility of a fifth championship next season.
“I’m just going to enjoy this one for a while,” he said. “Maybe ride off into the sunset.”