After a first half in which its offense was stifled, leading to a one-point halftime deficit, the key to preserving its perfect record was clear for Thomas Heyward Academy.
Find Ryan Day some running room.
He didn't need much.
Day turned small openings into huge plays in the second half, breaking touchdown runs of 34 and 32 yards to vault the Rebels to an 18-13 home win over Hilton Head Prep on Friday at Harvey-Beach Stadium and set up a showdown next week with Hilton Head Christian Academy.
Day entered the night averaging 156.2 rushing yards per game, but the Dolphins (4-3, 2-1 SCISAA Region 2-AA) bottled him up in the first half. Thomas Heyward (7-0, 3-0) scored on its opening drive, which was aided by two key penalties, but stalled for the rest of the half.
It didn't last.
Day burst through a hole off the left side for a 34-yard score on the Rebels' opening series of the second half, giving Thomas Heyward its first lead, and he bounced one to the outside for his second touchdown run to give the Rebels some breathing room. Day finished with 138 yards on 21 carries.
"He hits the hole hard, he sees the field well, and he's got the ability to drag four or five of them when he needs to," Rebels coach Nic Shuford said.
The Rebels' defense showed its mettle, too. Prep managed only 181 yards of total offense, 66 of which came on eighth-grader Aidan Hegarty's touchdown pass to Logan Clark with 1:48 left.
Hegarty was in the game for starter Jeremy Haidon, who left on a stretcher after taking a shot to the back of the head late in the third quarter. Haidon's condition was unavailable after the game. He had some movement in his extremities while down on the field, but felt a tingling sensation in his neck.
The late touchdown pass gave the Dolphins a glimmer of hope, but Thomas Heyward's J.D. Tuten covered the ensuing onside kick, and the Rebels ran out the clock.
"I thought our kids played one of our best games," Prep coach Kevin Orford said. "For us to have an opportunity -- to have an eighth-grade quarterback throw that pass and give us an opportunity for an onside kick to get the ball back -- that's all we could ask for."
Now the Dolphins need some help from their biggest rival to remain in the region title hunt. Prep plays winless First Baptist at home next week, then finishes the regular season at Hilton Head Christian. If the Eagles knock off Thomas Heyward next week, the Dolphins could still force a three-way tie for first with a win in the finale.
But the Rebels essentially can clinch the title with a home win over the Eagles on Friday, which is right where they expected to be.
"I definitely feel like we made a statement," Day said. "We've been called out a lot -- people asking how good we are. ... We kind of showed them tonight. We're here, and we're ready to go."