By Greg Brill
FRONT ROYAL -- It was Senior Night and Skyline was playing solid football.
The Hawks had just held the Judges to a field goal and had the ball back with a little more than five minutes left in the first half of Friday night's Northwestern District game.
On the second play of its next series, Skyline lost a fumble when Jonta Baltimore couldn't handle a pitch out. Handley scored off the turnover to take its first lead.
The Hawks fumbled again on their next series, and the Judges put together an eight-play drive to score again with 29 seconds left in the first half for a 10-point lead.
Those two crucial turnovers eliminated any hope the Hawks had left for an upset and Handley made sure the outcome was put to sleep by scoring on its first two possessions of the second half to go on to a 31-7 win.
Handley coach Tony Rayburn was pleased his defense had more of an impact this week after allowing Sherando to rush for close to 300 yards and three touchdowns in a 24-21 overtime win by the Judges last Saturday.
"We told [the defense] that last week we gave up too many yards and that we needed to come out and re-establish ourselves," Rayburn said. "I think we did that. Skyline's a good offensive team and I think we controlled them pretty well."
With Millbrook's 17-14 loss in overtime Friday to James Wood, Handley (5-3, 2-0 in district) now sits all alone in first place in the Northwestern.
The Judges, who won their fifth straight, got a game-high 120 rushing yards and three touchdowns from Trae Peck.
"It was huge [forcing turnovers] and it was exactly what we needed," said Peck, who also starts at strong safety. "I mean, [Skyline] came out fired up. This was their senior day, and I knew they were going to be ready to play and that we just had to execute. We didn't do too well our first [defensive] series, but our line started coming through and figured out what they had to do."
The super effort provided by Handley's defense amounted to holding Skyline to 134 total yards and forcing four turnovers. Handley's Daquanta Pannell had two interceptions.
"We came out really hyped and ready to play," said Handley junior linebacker Wade Clemons, who returned to the lineup following an injury in the second game of the season at Briar Woods. "We were focused on this game and did what we had to do. I tried my best and it's great to be back. I missed it a lot."
For the second straight game, Handley gave up a touchdown to open the game. From there, the Judges made gradual adjustments to keep Skyline in check. The Hawks' biggest gains after the first offensive series were a quarterback sneak by Aaron Jeremiah of 14 yards, and a pair of 14-yard receptions by Eli McEathron.
The Judges even turned things around on special teams. After twice losing on-side pooch kicks in the fourth quarter in last weeks's win over Sherando, Handley turned the trick to open the second half against Skyline (2-6, 0-3). A pooch kick was recovered by Skylar Wotring and the Judges scored off the turnover when Harrison Bayliss threw an 11-yard strike to Jaivon Wilson (eight catches, 94 yards) for a 24-7 lead.
"It was nice to see that happen," Rayburn said of recovering the pooch kick. "We missed one tonight, so we still need to improve there. We'll watch the film, but it does seem like we're getting better there. And that's what it is all about."
Skyline opened up with a 10-play, 67-yard drive to take a 7-0 lead on Kareem Caison's 16-yard run with 6:06 left in the first quarter. The Hawks received a big break when the Judges were called for roughing the punter early in the series, keeping the ball in the process.
The Hawks' Matthew Ballard recovered the on-side kick that followed, but Skyline was held to a three-and-out and had to punt the ball back.
After Donovan Varney kicked a 29-yard field goal at the 5:32 mark of the second quarter to get Handley on the board, Skyline fell apart.
Following the first turnover, Peck took a toss-sweep around the right side and scored from 18 yards out for a 10-7 lead. Peck got an outstanding block from fullback Tirone Young, who knocked linebacker Taylor Jeffries off his feet at the 10.
"It was exciting -- I almost didn't know whether I wanted to cut left or right, because [Young] put [Jeffries] on his back," Peck said. "It was a great block. When I saw that lane, I was just happy. We needed that score to go up and put the game away."
Another turnover followed, and Peck led a 56-yard drive by carrying six times, including the final yard for a 17-7 halftime lead.
The Judges put the game away with Wilson's touchdown reception to begin the second half, and Peck's third rushing score, from the 4, with 7:26 left in the third for a 31-7 lead.
The Judges played without defensive standouts Delroy McDaniel and Dexter Sloane, both out with injuries.
"We all came together -- just like a family," Clemons said. "It was a huge win."
The Hawks got 72 yards rushing from Caison and McEathron kept his lead as the district's leading receiver safe with five catches for 55 yards. Baltimore was lost to an injury and was on crutches in the second half with his left ankle heavily taped.