BOONE — Jake Watson ran for 109 yards and scored three touchdowns, but it was a special-teams play he made early in the fourth quarter that was a key to the Watauga Pioneers’ 35-13 win over visiting Mount Tabor on Friday night in the third round of the Class 3-AA football playoffs at Jack Groce Stadium.

After R.J. Mcintyre’s 8-yard touchdown run with 11:28 in the fourth quarter cut Mount Tabor’s deficit to 14-13, Watson broke through and smothered Eliott Trinh’s point-after kick to preserve the slimmest of leads for the Pioneers, who scored three touchdowns down the stretch to run away with their 11th straight win and earn a spot in the state semifinals Dec. 6 at Weddington, which beat Northwest Cabarrus 49-7 in a third-round game Friday night.

“One of our goals is to block a kick every game — a punt, a field goal or an extra point,” said Ryan Habich, the head coach of the 13-1 Pioneers. “It’s usually a big momentum change, and tonight, it allowed us to keep them behind on the scoreboard and get the ball back.

“Jake is one of our gladiators — he plays offense, defense and special teams, and we got a crease and got him in there.”

Tiesuan Brown, Mount Tabor’s coach, said his Spartans never recovered from the thwarted extra-point attempt.

“That blocked PAT was big; it sort of took the life out of us a little bit,” said Brown, whose team finished 9-5.

Watson, who scored on runs of 1 and 5 yards in the first half and 2 yards in the fourth quarter, gave two teammates credit for his big special-teams play.

“Dakota Silvers and Anderson Castle took their guys to the side, and I got open and blocked it,” he said.

The Pioneers responded by going 62 yards in four plays — one a 42-yard run by Jaiden Bond — with Castle scoring from the 2, and they tacked on Watson’s third touchdown with 36.6 seconds left in the game to make it 28-13. Then, after the ensuing kickoff, Elijah Towle intercepted a Jordon Zertuche pass and returned it 17 yards for a touchdown with 12 seconds left.

The Spartans had trouble generating much offense, held to 115 yards on the ground and 126 yards passing. Watauga rushed for 289 yards.

“They kept us off-balance on defense,” Brown said. “We stopped their quarterback, but they got some other guys going. They ran the dive all night, and they ran the counter-cross buck for some big plays.”

Watauga controlled the football in the first half and scored in the final minute of each of the first two quarters, taking a 14-7 lead with just 12 seconds left.

The Pioneers drove 60 yards in 12 plays on their second possession of the game, getting a 23-yard pass from Anderson Castle to Grant Oliver that set up Jake Watson’s 5-yard scoring run and Carter Everett’s PAT with 48.2 seconds left in the quarter.

Mount Tabor responded midway through the second quarter with an eight-play, 69-yard drive keyed by a 23-yard run by B.J. Mcintyre and a 24-yard completion from Zertuche to Lance Patterson that set up Zertuche’s 2-yard sneak and Eliott Trish’s PAT with 4:57 to play.

The Pioneers responded with a 13-play, 65-yard march that ended with Watson’s second 5-yard touchdown run. Watauga faced two fourth-downs on the drive and converted both times, the second on a 30-yard run by Castle that set the Pioneers up with a first-down at the Mount Tabor 6 with 41.8 seconds left. The Spartans stuffed Castle on first down and Bond on second down, but Watson broke through with 12.6 seconds left for the go-ahead score and Everett’s PAT made it 14-7.

Mt. Tabor 0 7 0 6 — 13 Watauga 7 7 0 21 — 35

WAT — Watson 1 run (Everett kick)

MTT — Zertuche 2 run (Trinh kick)

WAT — Watson 5 run (Everett kick)

MTT — Mcintyre 8 run (kick failed)

WAT — Castle 2 run (Everett kick)

WAT — Watson 2 run (Everett kick)

WAT — Towle 17 interception return (Everett kick)

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