BONNE TERRE – A resilient second half was not enough to save the North County football season from a disastrous and lackluster start Friday night.
The veteran offensive line could not protect quarterback Jack Moore, and the secondary failed to contain the dangerous Festus receivers.
Arhmad Branch had three long touchdown catches, and the Tigers produced nine sacks and four interceptions on defense to highlight a 28-15 victory in the Class 4, District 1 semifinal round.
Alternating quarterbacks Jeremiah Cunningham and Essien Smith each distributed two touchdown passes, and Festus (6-5) avenged its home conference loss to the Raiders in week 6.
North County (8-3) regrouped to allow no points after halftime, an identical feat compared to the meeting last month. But no steady comeback would transpire in the rematch.
Senior tailback Jobe Smith, the Raiders’ all-time rushing leader, notched a pair of touchdowns while capping his varsity career with 142 yards on 20 carries.
Festus was strong against the run early on, and yielded only 43 passing yards in the contest. North County ceded more territory on negative plays than it ultimately gained through the air.
Sophomore linebacker Mason Schirmer starred for the Tigers with four sacks, while defensive end Xavier Gould and blitzing linebacker Eli Ortmann chipped in two each.
Cunningham completed 3-of-7 passes for 154 yards, and connected deep down the right sideline to Will Reese for a 61-yard scoring strike on a third-and-10 play for the opening points.
Festus showed no trepidation for throwing into the stiff breeze, and quickly jumped ahead 14-0 as Essien Smith engineered its next series.
Smith scrambled to move the chains on third-and-14, then found Branch behind the defense for a 54-yard touchdown. They also combined for the ensuing two-point conversion.
North County ended its first two possessions with punts, then squandered starting field position at the Festus 40 after defensive end Xavier Scherffius sacked Cunningham to earn a needed stop.
Moore flipped a 12-yard pass to Jobe Smith, but a peculiar call on fourth-and-9 from the 24 followed as Zane Huff was dropped for a minimal gain on a toss sweep.
The Raiders saw another prime scoring opportunity evaporate in the second quarter. With Jobe Smith lined up as a receiver, Dane McCoy burst through the middle on a rare carry for a 50-yard pickup to the 13.
Moore released a perfect throw toward tight end Andrew Civey two plays later, but Civey did not fully possess the ball while landing out of bounds.
Cornerback Trey Lacey picked off the next pass by Moore at the goal line, and Branch helped the Tigers immediately capitalize on the game’s first turnover.
Another third-down conversion saw Cunningham throw a simple swing pass to Branch, who did the rest with blazing speed for a 90-yard touchdown and 20-0 advantage.
North County gambled, perhaps in desperation, on the ensuing drive as Jobe Smith successfully chose to scramble for 14 yards and a first down out of punt formation from his own 13.
Festus was flagged for questionable pass interference, and Smith scored on a 1-yard dive with 2:18 left until halftime after Civey had powered through a defender on a 12-yard reception.
Essien Smith had three timeouts at his disposal, and needed none while guiding the Tigers 58 yards on six plays for a crucial retaliation.
Branch caught another short throw on a rocket screen, and bolted past the Raiders again for a 32-yard touchdown and a 28-7 cushion with 15 seconds showing on the clock.
Smith was 4-of-8 passing for 117 yards, and paced Festus with 57 rushing yards on 10 attempts. Branch totaled 179 yards while taking his only three receptions the distance.
The Raiders tightened defensively after intermission, and created an initial turnover when Kooper Kekec intercepted a pass that Kolton Boylen tipped at the Festus 23.
But the promising turn of events was wasted after Gould and Carter Cupp pressured and sacked Moore while facing little resistance.
Jobe Smith ultimately pinned the Tigers at their 1 on a solid punt, and Civey tackled Landen Bradshaw in the end zone for a safety to make it 28-9.
The following free kick enabled North County to start another possession on the Festus side of midfield, but a 32-yard field goal attempt by Grant Mullins sailed left with the wind at his back.
Festus stalled yet again after Essien Smith was sacked on back-to-back downs by Mason Lay and Bryan Brewster to punctuate the third quarter.
But the Raiders faced an even tougher climb following a Schirmer sack. Moore appeared woozy on a slow walk to the sideline with 9:42 left, and would not return to the game.
Jobe Smith shifted to take snaps behind center, but his floating third-down pass was corralled over the middle by Brady Nolen for the first of his two picks in the fourth quarter.
Smith brought the Raiders closer on a 6-yard touchdown run with 1:57 remaining after surging through the middle for a 23-yard gain.
Boylan recovered an onside kick by Mullins at the Festus 36 to preserve some hope, but Ortmann sacked back-up QB Henry Allebach before Kekec threw an interception to Nolen on a trick play.
Civey, a Division I prospect, made a team-high eight tackles plus three catches for the Raiders, who were unable to match their magical run to the Class 4 final four last season.
Moore completed 6-of-15 passes for 36 yards.
Festus will face Hillsboro, which routed Farmington 57-0, for the district title next Friday.