HILLSBOROUGH — Senior quarterback Wyatt Jones looked right, scrambled left and threw a pass toward the corner of the end zone Friday night at Auman Stadium.
His team, Orange High School, trailed R.J. Reynolds by 10 points in its season opener. A touchdown here could very well provide the second-half spark the Panthers desperately needed.
Instead, about 12 seconds and 90 yards later, Demons defensive back Nassir Gibbs was celebrating a touchdown on the other side of the field.
That pick-six thrown by Jones — the only score of the third quarter — gave R.J. Reynolds (1-1) a comfortable lead it wouldn’t relinquish in a 47-24 win.
To Orange head coach Van Smith, that play, among others, was emblematic of his team’s performance Friday. The Panthers (0-1) had chunk plays on offense and flashes on defense, but penalties, turnovers and general sloppiness held them back.
“I was not a very good coach tonight,” Smith told News of Orange. “We weren’t prepared. We weren’t organized. We couldn’t get 11 guys on the field.”
His team’s season began eventfully enough, with senior Machai Holt picking off RJR quarterback Caden Davis on the game’s first offensive snap. Holt had a short rushing touchdown soon after to give Orange its first lead.
Davis fired back with a rushing and passing touchdown of his own. Orange, however, held a 13-12 lead after the first quarter, relying on Holt, who blocked an extra point, and Jones, who hit junior running back J.J. Torres for a touchdown on a wheel route.
“I liked how we went up and got the ball,” Torres, 16, told News of Orange. “We were aggressive. We didn’t give up on plays.”
In the second quarter, Reynolds settled in with two more touchdowns, while Orange only managed a Nigel Slanker field goal. The Panthers almost gave up a third score when they lost a fumble right before halftime.
But Orange’s defense made a huge goal-line stand, which culminated in Holt blocking a Reynolds field goal to keep the score at 26-16. The senior played a Percy Harvin-esque role for the Panthers, rushing for 38 yards on a variety of jet sweeps and catching three passes for 59 yards, including a highlight-reel one-hander, before an injury.
“I thought Machai Holt was very good,” Smith said.
Orange began the second half with a vengeance. Jones, the lefty quarterback, comfortably led the Panthers down the field. And Torres, who played in his first ever varsity game Friday, helped out on the ground. He finished with a team-high 12 carries for 59 yards.
The Panthers’ first near miss came when wide receiver Zyon Pettiford dropped a sure touchdown on a well placed fade route from Jones. RJR marched down the field — only for Orange to make another opportune stop, this time in the form of an interception.
Jones, yet again, led Orange on a lengthy drive. But this one ended in the aforementioned 90-yard pick-six, which gave Reynolds a 33-16 lead. Smith, Holt and Torres all expressed their confidence in Jones, who finished 9 of 20 for 197 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions.
“(Wyatt) did pretty good until he got tired and started lacking a little bit, but he’ll work back into it,” Holt, 17, told News of Orange. “It’s early season.”
Smith was more concerned with his defense, as were his players. Davis, the RJR quarterback, had six total touchdowns and cut through Orange’s front seven and secondary with ease all night.
Smith said the defense needed to “toughen up” and shore up its open-field tackling. Fatigue was also a factor, he said. Due to an NCHSAA scheduling quirk out of the team’s control, Orange didn’t play last week, which was opening night for most teams, including Reynolds.
“I’m not making excuses, because nobody gives a crap about excuses,” he said, “but it’s hard to take the first week off and then come out and play at game speed.”
Orange’s offense was steady with 357 total yards. That side of the ball, Smith said, will be key for the Panthers going forward. Jones, Holt and Pettiford are all seniors, and Torres flashed in his varsity debut with 72 total yards and a touchdown.
“I think being able to run the football tonight and being able to pass the ball the way we did were some positives,” Smith said. “We’ll take that and get better with it. We’ve just got to step up our intensity on both sides of the ball.”