NEW CASTLE — A stunned silence fell over the Smyrna High bench as it watched its prized quarterback be strapped onto a stretcher.
Nolan Henderson was gone from the biggest Smyrna game in 40 years. But before he was wheeled off, he flashed a quick thumbs-up to his teammates.
The Eagles realized it was all going to be OK if they won for Henderson.
Smyrna rallied after Henderson’s injury to knock off defending champion and second seed William Penn 30-13 in the semifinals of the DIAA Division I football state tournament on Saturday afternoon behind sophomore running back Will Knight, who rushed for 270 yards and four touchdowns.
“We fight for each other, we fight for our brothers,” Knight said. “When Nolan went down it was just a little adversity, we had to fight harder.”
Smyrna, seeded third, reached the first Division I title game in school history. The last time the Eagles played for a championship was in 1975 when they fell to Glasgow in Division II.
Smyrna (11-1) will face top seed Salesianum (10-1) for the state championship next Saturday at 1 p.m. at Delaware Stadium in Newark. The Eagles’ lone loss this season was to Sallies in a wild 76-56 offensive shootout during the third week of the season.
Henderson’s status for the title game is unclear as of Saturday. Smyrna coach Mike Judy said he was told Henderson was being kept at the hospital as a precaution.
“The kids we’re like, let’s win this for No. 2 (Henderson),” Judy said. “I just hope he can be with us next week in some capacity, whether he’s playing or not, because he’s earned that. It was sad he couldn’t be here to celebrate with his football family.”
Henderson was taken out of the game late in the second quarter when he was hit after an incomplete pass. The junior, who has 3036 passing yards this season, dropped to his knees while holding his helmet before lying on his back as the training staff tried to stabilize his neck area.
It delayed the game for 15 minutes and looked to cap off a first half where nothing went right for Smyrna. The Eagles were down 13-0 and their spread offense, which was averaging 55 points a game this year, wasn’t clicking like they were used to seeing.
An inspired Knight and Smyrna offensive line changed all that.
The Eagles shifted to what they call their “earthquake” package, normally reserved for two-point conversions and goal-line situations. It is a tightly-packed formation with Knight behind center and only one receiver out wide.
Knight reeled off runs of 20 and 16 yards before a 1-yard score with 21 seconds left in the half. Smyrna then forced a William Penn punt on the first drive of the third quarter, but a 56-yard punt by Frank Burton backed the Eagles up on their own 2-yard line.
That wasn’t a problem for Knight, though. On the first play he rumbled through a gaping hole and sped 98 yards for a touchdown. The Eagles kept the ball in Knight’s hands for a two-point conversion and a 14-13 advantage with 7:59 left in the third quarter.
“That hole was huge,” Knight said. “I saw the opportunity to just go and just took off. Truthfully I give that to all of the offensive linemen.”
Smyrna did not trail again for the rest of the game.
The Eagles defense held the Colonials scoreless for the final 34:46. And this was a William Penn team that was second in the state in points per game behind only Smyrna entering the contest.
“No doubt this is the best we’ve played on defense,” said junior linebacker Eli Hutchinson. “We prepared for them all week and accomplished our goal. We made tackles and we got in the backfield. We got a push on the line and dominated the line of scrimmage. It forced them to do some things they weren’t used to doing.”
“We take it very personal when people talk about us not being a top-tier defense,” Judy said. “Yeah we gave up 76 points to Sallies early in the year but we said that would never happen again.”
The defense knew it had to play its best once Henderson went down.
“We had to carry our end of the bargain,” Hutchinson said. “We knew the offense needed us. You can’t bend over and fold.”
Smyrna’s Plan B on offense continued to work with an 80-yard drive that ended with a 7-yard Knight rush for a 22-13 lead in the third after another two-point conversion. Backup quarterback Ryan McNatt even got in on the action that drive with a 16-yard gain on an option keeper.
Knight proved he could truly do it all on the Eagles’ final drive of the game. With Smyrna facing a third-and-12 on its own 13, Knight completed a jump pass to senior wide receiver Jared Gillis for 49 yards. That drive ended with another 7-yard touchdown by Knight.
Smyrna forced a turnover on downs on William Penn’s last possession before time ran out. It led to a raucous celebration on the sideline with a standing ovation from the sea of red that stretched the length of the field in the stands on Smyrna’s side.
“That was one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen,” Judy said. “It felt like a home game. It’s a testament to the Smyrna-Clayton community and the hard-working, blue collar families that live there and I’m really glad we were able to take home a big game for them.”