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VELMA — After nearly two decades of wandering the state to reach postseason venues followed by a victorious 28-mile jaunt east Friday, Empire is headed home.
For the playoffs.
Dillon Twigg ran for 242 yards and three touchdowns as Empire secured second place in District A-4 and a home first-round playoff game with a 28-12 victory Friday over Velma-Alma at Edgar Martin Field.
It marked Empire's first win over Velma-Alma in at least 17 years.
The Bulldogs, who rose to 7-2 overall and 5-1 in the district, haven't played host to a postseason contest since the mid-1990s. That will change Nov. 15, when Empire entertains the third place finisher from District A-3.
Empire will accept a forfeit from Bray-Doyle this week and finish at 8-2 overall and 6-1 in league.
Crescent, the team that knocked Empire from the playoffs last season, has the inside edge to finish third in A-3.
Velma-Alma (6-3, 4-2) will finish third in A-4 and travel to the second place finisher out of A-3 for the first round of the playoffs. Cashion (7-2, 4-1) appears a lock to finish second in A-3.
On Friday, the Bulldogs played keep-away from Velma-Alma, nearly doubling the Comets in offensive snaps and total yards. Empire limited V-A to 16 offensive snaps and two first downs in the second half.
Coach Greg Gothard's Comets, who normally feature a methotical, ball-control offense, scored on plays of 65 and 66 yards. V-A gained just 41 yards combined on its non-scoring plays.
"We've had good practices all season," said Twigg, who has eclipsed the 1,900-yard mark in eight games this season. He missed one game because of an ankle injury. "In games, we just never played four full quarters. Tonight was the night to do it. This is the best game we've played as a team.
"The main thing tonight was our defense, but on offense, we wanted to come off the ball and lock our blocks. That was our goal — to keep the ball away from them."
The Bulldogs played turnover-free ball and had four drives of 10 or more plays. Twigg alone carried 35 times, while the Comets offense took a total of just 34 snaps from scrimmage.
"We wanted to run straight ahead and control the ball," Empire head coach Tony Roberts said. "Dillon Twigg really stepped up. I couldn't be more proud of every one of our kids, from top to bottom — and the coaches did an excellent job.
"I think a lot of Coach Gothard. He's a really good coach and they have a really good football team. This is the first time I've beaten Velma in 28 years of coaching. It's been a goal of mine — just because of who Velma is and how good their program is."
After a scoreless first quarter, Empire went to work on its first possession of the second quarter. The Bulldogs started the drive at their own 26-yard line, and Twigg carried on all six of the plays. He capped the series with a 41-yard run off of right tackle and past the V-A defense for a touchdown.
It took V-A one play to answer. V-A quarterback Sarian Smith scooted off his right tackle and raced past Empire on the way to a 65-yard touchdown. Smith's pass for the two-point conversion fell incomplete, and that allowed Empire to cling to a 7-6 halftime lead.
Empire received the second half kickoff and immediately went to work, moving to the Comets' 25-yard line in seven plays. Then V-A was penalized for hitting Twigg late. One play later, Twigg dashed to the end zone for a 13-yard TD. Anthony Gonzalez added the extra point, and Empire held on to the 14-6 lead through the end of the third quarter.
With a little less than eight minutes left in the game, Smith tried to throw an out-route on second-and-nine. But Empire defensive back Dakota Bilbrey stepped in front of the route, intercepted the pass, and raced 27 yards to the end zone.
Velma-Alma answered in three plays, with quarterback Ty Richardson throwing a 66-yard scoring strike to Conner Sullivan. But Empire went on a 12-play scoring drive, capped by Twigg with 50 seconds remaining.
Linebacker Stephen Price returned to the Empire defense after missing four games with a broken leg and made a key fourth quarter sack stop a deep Velma-Alma drive.
Empire defensive back Evan Whitt had two interceptions, one of the Comets' last two-point conversion attempt and another on the Comets' last play from scrimmage.