SUGAR HILL — It was far from a pretty night offensively. Costly flags were rampant. But Lanier’s football team still found a way to win.

The Longhorns’ defense scored a first-half touchdown, stopped two third-quarter drives inside the 5-yard line and set up the game-winning score with a fourth-quarter turnover Friday night for a 23-20 victory over visiting Clarke Central.

“Credit to our guys, we found a way,” said Lanier head coach Korey Mobbs, whose team improved to 4-0. “We have a tendency to do that. I would love for it to be a bit prettier, but I told our guys we aren’t going to take any win for granted.”

The defense, which allowed only 26 points in its first three games, played a pivotal role in the victory from the start. Heavily recruited linebacker Phillip Webb jumped and intercepted a first-quarter screen pass, returning it 19 yards for a touchdown and an early 7-7 tie.

The unit held Clarke (3-2) to field goals on its first two third-quarter possessions, which surrounded a Lanier turnover, during a stretch where the game could have slipped away. The Gladiators had first-and-goal from the 3-yard line and first-and-goal from the 4, but couldn’t punch it in either time, settling for short field goals from Christian Bryan.

Because of that, Clarke’s lead was just 20-15 early in the fourth quarter when Lanier’s Devin Gray recovered a fumble at the Gladiators’ 31-yard line. Three plays later, Andrew Blackford hit Nahil Perkins for a 30-yard TD that ended up as the game-winning score. Blackford hit Jamar Rucks for a two-point conversion and a 23-20 lead with 9:34 left.

The score erased some of a miserable third quarter for the Longhorns, who had 13 yards, a turnover, four personal fouls, one unsportsmanlike conduct and one pass interference in the quarter.

“Clarke’s a pretty good football team and they’ve got some pretty good players, and we knew that,” Mobbs said. “We’ve got to do a better job of keeping our composure, myself included, because we helped extend drives there. I was proud of our defense. They bowed their necks and held them to field goals there (in the third quarter) and that was probably the difference in the game.”

Clarke had one last gasp, reaching the Lanier 36-yard line with four minutes left. Facing a fourth-and-6, the Gladiators punted and never got the ball back.

Lanier ran nine plays, mostly with Taj Barnes (23 rushes, 78 yards), and kept the drive alive when Cole Thornton drew a pass interference penalty on a crucial third down.

Thornton was the catalyst in Lanier’s only scoring drive of the first half. The senior made an impressive play on a 48-yard touchdown catch with 57 seconds left in the second quarter, leaping over the top of a Clarke defender at the 20, shoving the defender off and trotting in for a score. Rylan Serna’s two-point conversion put Lanier up 15-14 at halftime.

“We got a big spark from Cole Thornton making a big play there at the end of the first half,” Mobbs said.

Thornton had two catches for 63 yards, and Perkins had two catches for 55 yards. Blackford was 5 of 19 passing for 129 yards and two interceptions. He was 3-for-4 for 88 yards on the late second-quarter scoring drive, but 2-for-15 for 41 yards otherwise.

“I’m proud of our guys,” Mobbs said. “They fought through a lot of adversity and found a way to finish.”

LANIER 23, CLARKE CENTRAL 20

Clarke Central 7 7 6 0 - 20

Lanier 7 8 0 8 - 23

FIRST QUARTER

Clarke: O’Brien Barnett 1 run (Christian Bryan kick) 5:08

Lanier: Phillip Webb 19 interception return (Mason Mancilla kick) 3:29

SECOND QUARTER

Clarke: Nono Mack 45 pass from Isaac Ward (Bryan kick) 4:51

Lanier: Cole Thornton 48 pass from Andrew Blackford (Rylan Serna run) :57

THIRD QUARTER

Clarke: Bryan 22 FG, 8:36

Clarke: Bryan 19 FG, 6:41

FOURTH QUARTER

Lanier: Nahil Perkins 30 pass from Blackford (Jamar Rucks pass from Blackford) 9:34

CC Lanier

First downs 14 11

Rushes-yards 38-125 30-87

Passing yards 147 129

Comp-Att-INT 13-25-1 5-19-2

Fumbles-lost 2-1 0-0

Penalties-yards 7-65 8-70

INDIVIDUAL STATISTICS

RUSHING - Clarke Central: Barnett 22-77; Amerion Stembridge 7-39; Ward 7-8; Mack 1-2; Will Richardson 1-(minus-1). Lanier: Taj Barnes 23-78; Tyler Washington 3-19; Team 1-(minus-3); Blackford 3-(minus-7).

PASSING - Clarke Central: Ward 12-24-1, 133; Rio Foster 1-1-0, 14. Lanier: Blackford 5-19-2, 129.

RECEIVING - Clarke Central: Mack 6-81; A.J. Jewell 3-30; Chris Johnson 2-18; Tracy Hill 1-14; Justin Hodges 1-4. Lanier: Thornton 2-63; Perkins 2-55; Reese Scott 1-11.

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