COLUMBIA - Stratford football coach Ray Stackley surveyed the celebration across the field, signaled to his players to form a line for the traditional postgame handshake, and then saluted Northwestern coach Kyle Richardson and the Trojans for a job well done.
Stackley might search for answers to what had happened, but there was no question the better team won. Northwestern defeated Stratford, 62-35, Saturday afternoon in front of about 6,000 fans at Williams-Brice Stadium to win its second state title since 2009.
"We lost, but we're fortunate to be here," Stackley said. "This is going to hurt for a long time. But we have to remember how many teams didn't get here."
Northwestern quarterback Mason Rudolph set a state championship game record with eight touchdown passes, and the Trojans' defense forced eight Stratford turnovers on a gray, rainy day.
The 97 points by both teams also was a state championship game record.
The game featured two Shrine Bowl quarterbacks, the first time in state championship history: Rudolph vs. Jacob Park, and Rudolph prevailed to give the Trojans a 15-0 record and the state championship.
Rudolph, who has committed to Oklahoma State, completed 38-of-54 passing for 483 yards and eight scores for the Trojans, who were appearing the state championship for the fifth time in six years.
Park, who enroll at the University of Georgia next month, completed 21-39 for 324 yards and four scores, and scored on a 34-yard run for the Knights, who finished with a 12-3 record. Park, however, threw four interceptions and fumbled twice, losing possession both times.
Trojan wide receiver Dupree Hart, a 5-foot-6 junior, caught 21 passes for 209 yards and two scores. He came up one catch short of a state record for single-game receptions.
"No. 14 (Hart) was the key," Stackley said. "We gambled late in the game and other players caught the ball. But we had no answer for him."
Northwestern, No. 12 in the most recent USA Today poll of the top 25 teams in the country, delivered the knockout punches early.
The Trojans marched the opening kickoff 64 yards in five plays with Hart making a dazzling one-handed catch for a 21-yard TD just two minutes into the game. On Stratford's first play from scrimmage, Hart ran the ball but fumbled. Jamah Mitchell recovered on the Knights' 24. Four plays later, Rudolph ripped off a 16-yard run to the Knights' 3-yard line, but fumbled into the endzone. He alertly covered the ball and Northwestern led 14-0 just two minutes and 58 seconds into the game.
"We set the tone early," Richardson said. "The offense did its thing and then we go out and cause a turnover. I felt like we could come out and take advantage of some matchups. I didn't know how we would respond, but we had a great week of practices."
Stratford, playing in its third state championship game since 1999, fell behind early and had to abandon its running game early. The Knights managed to outgain the Trojans 126-41 on the ground, but the winners held a 524-451 advantage in total yardage.
The Trojans' pace on offense was dazzling. They scored nine TDs, and every score came on a drive that lasted less than two minutes and 34 seconds.
"We fell behind and had to throw the football around," said Stackley, who led the Knights to a state championship in 1999. "When you get behind big, you don't quit. You keep on slinging the ball. We tried to force some things. We gave up that touchdown on the first drive and then we fumbled it on our first possession. That put us behind the 8-ball."
Hart caught three TD passes in the first half and finished with four TDs. He wasn't the only Trojan who came up big. Quadarius Fair caught seven passes for 175 yards and also scored four TDs.
Park, who finished with 409 total yards, completed passes to six different Knights. Thad Thompson caught nine passes for 209 yards and a pair of TDs, including a 66-yarder in the third quarter.
Dutch Fork played Sumter later in the day in the Division I-AAAA state championship. Reporters asked Richardson if his team was the best Class AAAA team in the state.
"We came out on top," Richardson said. "We're the only undefeated (Class AAAA) team in the state. I'll take the No. 1 ranking, also."
Northwestern 21 14 20 7 --62
Stratford 7 7 7 14 --35
Northwestern - Hart, 21 pass from Rudolph (Foy kick)
Northwestern - Rudolph, fumble recovery (Foy kick)
Northwestern - Hart, 29 pass from Rudolph (Foy kick)
Stratford - Park, 34 run (Tekac kick)
Northwestern - Fair, 7 pass from Rudolph (Foy kick)
Stratford - Givens, 11 pass from Park (Tekac kick)
Northwestern - Hart, 9 pass from Rudolph (Foy kick)
Northwestern - Fair, 40 pass from Rudolph (Foy kick)
Northwestern - Hart, 24 pass from Rudolph (Foy kick failed)
Stratford - Thompson, 66 pass from Park (Tekac kick)
Northwestern - Fair, 47 pass from Rudolph (Foy kick)
Stratford - Allen, 6 pass from Park (Tekac kick)
Northwestern - Fair, 39 pass from Rudolph (Foy kick)
Stratford - Thompson, 3 pass from Park (Tekac kick)