Imoh's record-setting day leads Handley past James Wood and into playoffs

WINCHESTER — What a way to break a playoff drought.
In what amounted to a play-in game for the Region 4C playoffs, Handley dominated James Wood 44-21 on Saturday at James R. Wilkins Jr. Stadium to earn its first trip to the postseason since 2013.
Judges senior quarterback Malachi Imoh torched James Wood for 277 yards and five touchdowns rushing and 77 yards and one TD passing as Handley (8-2, 5-2 Class 4 Northwestern District) built up a 21-0 lead in the second quarter and a 44-7 advantage five seconds into the fourth quarter. James Wood's last two touchdowns came against Handley's reserves in the final four minutes.
A victory by the Colonels (6-4) would have sent James Wood to the playoffs for the first time since 2014, but the Judges rarely wavered in a game in which they outgained the Colonels 459-280. Handley kept that James Wood yardage down with five sacks (2.5 by Stephen Daley). 
The Judges were all smiles after the game, and the players let out several cheers while they gathered for their post-game huddle on the field. Handley will be the No. 2 seed for the Northwestern District in the Region 4C quarterfinals and will host Loudoun Valley (the No. 3 Dulles team) next Saturday at 1 p.m. 
"It's nothing but excitement," said Handley senior linebacker Quinton Newman. "I don't even know what to do with myself right now, I'm so excited."
"It's such a big game for us," said Imoh, who broke Handley's school single-season rushing yardage and rushing touchdown marks on Saturday. "The James Wood game itself is just big after we lost year [in overtime] in a really emotional game, and we knew if we won we were going to the playoffs.
"We were able to execute and convert. We started really fast, and we were able to keep that going through the game."
Imoh has been stellar all year, but on Saturday he was at his best.
He had a 13-yard TD run to close out a 91-yard drive on Handley's first possession.
He had a five-yard TD run in which he split two defenders on the left edge with 3:51 left in the second quarter.
After Tycuan McMillan recovered a fumbled James Wood kickoff at the Colonel 40-yard line, Imoh found an opening down the right sideline to make it 21-0.
Just when it seemed James Wood might settle into the game after Carson Hoberg (12 of 18 for 215 yards and one TD, two rush TDs) capped off a 10-play, 72-yard drive with a two-yard TD run with just 15.9 seconds left in the half, Imoh struck again on the first play after the kickoff went out of bounds. 
Imoh ran around the left side, then reversed course as he neared the 20-yard line, cutting almost all the way back across the field for a 57-yard TD run with just two seconds left on the clock. Adam Pollak (5 of 5 on extra points, 39-yard field goal) kicked the extra point to send the game into halftime at 28-7.
"We ran a sweep, we blocked really well up front and I was able to cut it back," Imoh said. "There were two guys on the left side, so I think I split them and saw a lot of area on the right side. I was able to cut back across and get into the end zone from there. That gave us a lot of momentum going into halftime."
Imoh added another 57-yard TD run in the third quarter when it looked for a moment that the Colonels might corral him in the backfield, but he was able to circle back and around the defense on the right side and burst into the clear, putting the Judges up 41-7 with 4:40 left in the third quarter.
Handley made no secret of its desire to establish the running game. Imoh ran seven times for 80 yards and Noah Hendrickson (12 carries for 59 yards) toted the ball twice for eight yards on a 10-play, 91-yard drive to start the game. Imoh only attempted three passes in the first half and five total (he had a 39-yard TD throw to Jayden Vardaro in the second half) as the Judges gained 380 yards on the ground.
Imoh gave a lot of credit to the offensive line for giving him the time to find openings. That group features left tackle Solomon Johnson, left guard Noah Johnson, center Luke Foltz, right guard Joey Ashby and right tackle Kobe Wolfinbarger. Wolfinbarger had to leave with an injury early in the second half, but Tommy Ashby stepped in and kept the Judges humming.
"They were able to just come out from the beginning of the game and make really great, big holes both for me and Noah," Imoh said. "We were able to find the holes the offensive line made and hit them full speed."
And when Imoh wasn't hitting them at full speed, he did a good job of waiting for his running lanes to develop.
"The thing he's really improved on this year is the patience and the vision," Jones said. "And of course it's nice to have that speed."
It was a combination that proved too much for James Wood to handle, but the Colonels are hardly alone. Imoh's record totals this year are now 1,952 rush yards (Trae Peck had 1,688 in 2010) and 29 rushing TDs (Adam Woods had 28 in 1999).
"Liberty has a really good defense and really good athletes, and they did a really good job of hemming him in [last week]," James Wood coach Ryan Morgan said. "We were hoping we could keep him hemmed in and keep him bottled up a little bit, but obviously we didn't make the plays that were there to make.
"He's a dynamic athlete, probably the best offensive player in the area. He deserves all the accolades. It's tough. He's almost impossible to stop. We expected him to make some plays, but obviously he put his team on his back early and helped them jump out to a big lead."
Handley's defense showed right away that it wasn't going to make it easy for James Wood to rip off big gains of its own.
The Judges had two sacks in forcing the Colonels to go three-and-out on their first possession. The mobile Hoberg did his best to keep plays alive, but he finished with minus-4 yards on 13 carries because of the sacks and was just 9 of 14 for 95 yards until the final four minutes of the game.
"They do a good job of bringing people, and obviously Stephen Daley's tough to handle off the edge," Morgan said. "I think some of our route combinations were coming open, but when you only have [a few] seconds, it's tough."
The Colonels had some opportunities early, but couldn't convert. They recovered a fumbled punt at the Handley 40 after their first possession, but Hoberg's swing pass to the left flat on fourth-and-1 from the 9 was too far in front of his intended target and fell incomplete. James Wood's second possession ended with Sam Adkins (18 rush, 65 yards) getting stuffed for no gain on fourth-and-1 from the Judges' 40.
James Wood came into the weekend averaging 34.6 points and an area-best 385.4 yards per game. 
"Our first-team defense gave up seven points, and that's a great job," Jones said. "That's a balanced offense that James Wood runs, and they do it well. 
"We couldn't let [Hoberg] sit back there. We had to stay in our lanes and rush. We didn't always do that well, because he scrambled and got out and made some plays to hurt us. But overall, we knew we had to get in his face and force him to make quicker decisions."
Jones said he couldn't be happier for his team and particularly for his seniors for what they accomplished. Not only did the Judges break a six-year playoff drought, but they've also won eight games for the first time since 2010.
"The seniors have brought this program back to where this program needs to be and should be," Jones said. "It's because of their hard work and dedication and holding each other accountable that has really made this difference for us."  
While Handley celebrated on one end of the field, the faces of James Wood's players were red with sadness over seeing their season end. Members of James Wood's 21-member senior class hugged each other prior to leaving the field.
While the Colonels might not have played their best game, senior Will Crowder (three catches. 75 yards) was proud of how the team fought Saturday, and throughout the season.
"We never threw in the towel and said, 'We're just done, and we don't care,'" Crowder said. "We kept on fighting and did everything we were taught.
"I'm just proud of this team. It's been a heck of a season. I wasn't able to play last week [because of injury] but I made sure I was going to play today. I want to thank our whole offensive line, my quarterback Carson, Sam [Adkins], and especially Coach Morgan and all the coaches that have helped me."
James Wood had its first winning season since 2010 this year, and Crowder hopes the underclassmen will build off it next year.
"We're really proud of the seniors," Morgan said. "We have a big senior class, and they put in a lot of effort. They're great kids. The leadership came from across the board. It wasn't just one or two people. There are some years where we don't have many leaders at all. It really helps when you have good athletes who are also good people in the classroom and hard workers.
"We're proud of the direction that the program is going. We went from four wins last year to six wins and just short of making the playoffs. We're proud of the direction, we just wished we could have turned it up a notch a little bit sooner."  
James Wood was also led by sophomore Jaden Ashby, who caught six passes for 125 yards, including a 76-yard TD from Hoberg with 3:36 left.  
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