By Chris McCarthy/Editor
Don’t count out Southside just yet for the Class 5A state playoffs.
Facing a win-or-no postseason situation last Friday (Oct. 19) against Class 5A, Region 7 rival Etowah, the Panthers scored the go-ahead touchdown in the final minute to emerge with a 27-26 victory in Attalla.
The win moved the Panthers (5-3, 3-3) into sole possession of third place, a game behind a three-way second-place tie of Etowah, Arab and Boaz. The Panthers, who ended the Blue Devils’ five-game winning streak, need to beat Brewer this week to remain in the playoff picture.
The Blue Devils (6-2, 4-2) can still clinch the region’s second seed and a first-round home game if they defeat Boaz on Friday.
Trailing 26-20 since halfway through the third quarter, Southside earned a one last opportunity on offense when Devin Horton’s 40-yard punt return for a touchdown at the 4:22 left mark of the fourth period was negated by an illegal block penalty.
The Panther defense forced a three-and-out on the subsequent Etowah possession, and Southside took over at its own 20-yard line with 2:33 on the clock.
On the drive’s first play, Blake Devine passed to Justin Denson on a halfback option play, and Denson out-raced the Blue Devil defense all the way to the Etowah 15.
“That was something that we’ve been waiting to use in the proper moment,” said Southside head coach Marty Smith. “[Etowah] was really coming down (on the pass rush) so it was a good time to see if it would work.”
Holt Keeling finished off the series three plays later with a 10-yard touchdown run, tying the score at 26-26 with 16.4 seconds left.
It all came down to Carter West’s extra point attempt, and the senior kicker punched it through to provide Southside with the lead.
The hosts had 15.3 seconds to work with, however, and a personal foul penalty on the Panthers put the ball at the Blue Devil 45 with five seconds remaining.
Etowah would get no further, as Daulton Coker sacked Etowah quarterback Tyler Bishop to nail down the Panther win.
“We need a win like this one in which we had to come from behind early in the ballgame,” said Smith. “Our coaches put our kids in a position to make plays tonight, and our kids stepped up and made them. You had both sides playing their hearts out tonight, and both teams believed in their coaching staffs. When you have that, that makes for a heck of a ballgame.”
Due in large part to big plays in the passing game, Southside out-gained Etowah 359 to 239 in total yardage, including a 127-yard advantage via the air.
Patrick Lister turned in one of his finest performance in his three-plus seasons as the Panthers’ starting quarterback. The senior signal-caller completed 7-of-11 passes for 177 yards and two touchdowns, with both TDs over 30 yards.
Dantley Coker powered the SHS ground game with 1146yards on 22 carries. Keeling added 52 yards on six carries.
Devine had three receptions for 93 yards, while Dantley Coker caught three passes for 34 yards.
Trailing 20-14 at halftime, Southside opened the third quarter with a 74-yard, eight-play possession.
Every inch of the drive’s real estate came on the ground, with Lister’s three-yard scoring run knotting the game at the 8:33 mark.
The above score lasted for less than a minute, when on the second play of the ensuing drive Dylan Tucker broke free for a 55-yard touchdown run.
The two-point conversion attempt failed, but the Blue Devils led 26-20 with 7:23 left in the quarter.
The Panthers answered with another prolonged series that consumed almost six minutes of clock time, but the drive ended when Jay Duckett came up with his sixth interception of the season.
Southside got the ball back three plays later when Adam Pierce recovered a fumble, but the visitors failed to cash in.
The teams exchanged punts during the first portion of the fourth quarter, setting the stage for the Panthers’ last-minute scoring drive.
Etowah head coach Sam McCorkle, whose team’s last loss came in Week 2 against Fort Payne, put the loss squarely on his shoulders.
“I take responsibility for us not winning. If I put our guys in a better position or motivated a little different or had coached a little bit better, maybe we would have won the game. We just couldn’t get anything going steadily on offense, and that’s on me. I want to give all the credit to Southside, because they made all the big plays when they had to.”
For the Blue Devils, Bishop completed 5-of-11 passes for 82 yards, all in the first half.
Tucker led Etowah in rushing with 57 yards on two carries. Devin Horton ran 13 times for 55 yards, while Dominick Pinson added 40 yards on eight attempts.
Southside found itself on the short end of the scoreboard soon after the opening kickoff, which Pinson returned 53 yards to the Panther 32.
Horton reeled off a 30-yard run on the Blue Devils’ first play from scrimmage, and the junior halfback scored two plays later from the 3.
Horton passed to Chris Steele for the two-point conversion, putting the hosts up 8-0 at 10:47 of the first quarter.
Etowah attempted to add to its lead on its next series, but a fake field goal try from the Southside 12 came up short.
After Chase Nobles’ interception set up Southside at the Blue Devil 40, the Panthers hit pay dirt on the first play of the second quarter. On fourth down and 16, Lister found Keeling behind the Etowah defense, and the sophomore speedster took it to the house.
Brady Stephens ran in the two-point conversion, tying the score at 8-8 at 11:50.
Etowah responded on the next possession, moving 60 yards in 10 plays. Bishop and Pinson hooked up on a 15-yard TD pass on first and goal, making it 14-8 in favor off the hosts at 7:28.
That advantage lasted all of one minute and 19 seconds, as runs of 22 and 15 yards by Coker brought the visitors to the Etowah 34, where Lister and Devine teamed up for a touchdown pass and a 14-14 tie with 6:09 left until the half.
But Southside failed to take the lead, as Cedric Childs blocked the PAT.
A big play by the Blue Devil defense led to Etowah’s next score.
With Southside inside Blue Devil territory, Duckett stepped in front of a Lister pass and returned it 36 yards to the Panther 26.
Bishop passed to Xavier Caldwell for a touchdown on the next play, restoring the Blue Devil advantage at 20-14 with 3:48 left until the half.
Southside had an opportunity to tie or take the lead on its final possession of the first half after Lister’s 54-yard pass to Devine provided the visitors with a first and goal from the Etowah 3.
But the Panthers gained zero yards on four plays, sending the Blue Devils into the locker room with a six-point lead.
“I’m awful proud of our football team, and I think they played really hard,” said McCorkle. “Average guys don’t win 16 out of their last 20 games. I feel good about our team and I feel good about our chances this week. If our guys are who I think that are, they’ll come back with a fierce competitive spirit and prove what kind of team we really have.”
Nobles led the Panthers in tackles with 12, followed by Hunter Armstrong with 10 and Keeling and Hunter Sparks with six each.
Both teams close out region play this week. Southside hosts Brewer, while Etowah travels to Boaz.
“These kids understand now that you have to play with passion, and we tonight we finally used our passion to fuel us through adversity,” said Smith. “We hadn’t yet done that, and to see our kids do that tonight is very exciting. This is a win that we can build off of and help get this program where I want it to go.”