Over the weekend, Virginia Tech head coach Justin Fuente said “The first rule of special teams is don’t have a terrible thing happen.”
Unfortunately, Northern Nash didn’t get that memo Friday night.
The Knights punting unit cost them 17 points in the first half against Orange, which isn’t unusual for a young team in the season opener. But having a player as special as Payton Wilson is unusual, and Orange rode its thoroughbred to as often as possible as he begins his final lap.
Wilson had 244 punt return yards and 127 receiving yards to push the Panthers past the Knights 40-6 on a sultry Friday night in Death Valley. Marvante Beasley rushed for 124 yards and two touchdowns, his 12th 100-yard rushing game.
Orange has now won 17 consecutive regular games and 21 straight nonconference games.
Of course, few times run on all cylinders in its season opener and Orange was no different on Friday night. New head coach Van Smith, in his first game, watched his new offense sputter, at times. The Panthers have junked the double wing offense for the en vogue spread attack installed by new offensive coordinator Steve Burdeau, who arrived to Hillsborough after two seasons at Richmond County.
With seniors Rodney Brooks and Brenden Huss sharing time at quarterback, the results were hit and miss. Brooks was more eager to keep the ball on zone-reads, rushing for 18 yards on five carries in front of an offensive line with only one returning starter.
The one thing both players had in common was who they viewed as the top target: Wilson.
On the opening possession, Knights punter Travis Smith had the ball snapped over his head, setting up Orange from the Knight 12-yard line for the opening possession of the season. On third-and-goal from the Nash 7-yard line, Brooks found Wilson for the opening touchdown in the right corner of the end zone.
It was the start of a exhausting night for Wilson and Beasley, who endured the hottest weather they’ve ever played in.
“It was crazy out here,” said Wilson. “It wasn’t just hot, it was like you could barely breathe because it was so humid. We were in better shape, obviously. It was rough out here today. I’m ready for that fall weather.”
“I was about to die,” said Beasley. “I don’t sweat a lot but I’ve never played in a hotter game in my life.”
In the 2nd quarter, Wilson returned a punt 55 yards, leading to Francisco McKinley’s 23-yard field goal. On the subsequent possession, Wilson received another punt, which he returned 50 yards before fumbling at the Nash 30-yard line. Panther upback Colin Guentensberger picked up the loose ball and ran the final 30 yards for a touchdown.
Wilson, who had five punt returns for touchdowns last season, was surprised Nash continued to kick it right to him.
“After the first one, I thought they would kick it out of bounds like most teams do,” said Wilson. “But they kept kicking it to me.”
“Punt returns are definitely the most tiring,” said Wilson. “On defense, I give it my all because I try to make every play. I’m already tired when I walk back to return punts. Sometimes I run it back 50, 60 yards, so that’s what really tires me out.”
Orange opened the second half with Wilson making a gorgeous diving catch for 32 yards down to the Knight 1-yard line. Beasley scored his first touchdown of the season two plays alter.
“I felt like we were firing off the ball in the second half better,” said Beasley. “It cooled down a lot in the second half and we executed better. We focused much better.”
Later in the third quarter, Beasley scored on an 11-yard touchdown run. McKinley kicked a 32-yard field goal in the fourth quarter, doubling his season total from 2016 in the opening game.
Nash scored its only touchdown when quarterback Davontae Wiggins threw to Trevor Sledge for a 36-yard score.
Orange plays its only nonconference home game on Friday night against Wilmington Hoggard, who hammered Holly Springs 48-7 on Friday night.
“Hoggard is always supposed to be pretty good,” said Wilson. “We need a real good week of practice. Me and Marvante and everyone else worked very hard this offseason, so it means a lot to us. We out to go out every game the same.”