By Cody Dowler/Fort Payne Times-Journal
A year ago, it was the Fort Payne Wildcats who didn’t finish strong in a 34-31 loss at Southside.
Last Friday (Sept. 8), the Wildcats turned the tables with a 28-14 home win.
The Panthers came out on offense with a shifty running game that gave the ‘Cats fits on the opening drive of the game.
In Southside’s first eight plays of the game, all of which were runs, the Panthers picked up 45 yards before the first penalty of the night backed them up to midfield.
Southside converted the following third-and-13 on their first pass of the night when quarterback Gavin Griffin found Caleb Jacobs open for a 16-yard pickup. Two plays later, Griffin connected with Landon Thompson on a 26-yard touchdown strike to go up 7-0.
Facing their first first-quarter deficit this season, the Fort Payne offense didn’t panic. Sophomore receiver Carter Pinholster took the following kickoff near midfield on a 37-yard return, and on the second play from scrimmage senior quarterback Jay Tyler Ellis stepped up in the pocket and connected with Pinholster on a 40-yard pass over the middle to set up first-and-goal from the 7-yard line.
The Wildcats came away empty-handed on the possession when a botched handoff from Ellis to J.C. Groat ended in five yards away from the end zone. But the Fort Payne defense
forced Southside’s first punt of the evening.
The Wildcat offense again took over near midfield and struck immediately when Ellis hit sophomore Matthew Shaddix between the numbers on a skinny post route over the middle.
Shaddix did the rest and took the completion all the way in for a 53-yard touchdown.
Evan McPherson’s extra point tied the game up just 20 seconds into the second quarter.
Both teams traded punts after quick possessions before Southside looked to score near the end of the half. The Panthers gained 22 yards on a pass down the seams from Griffin to Gavin Orr to get into Fort Payne territory.
The Wildcats thought they had stopped the drive after an incomplete pass on a third-and-10, but a roughing the passer penalty put the Panthers in the red zone.
Southside’s Ethan Stevenson then banged his way to the 1-yard line before Tyler Abernathy punched the ball into the end zone to put the Panthers up 14-7 with 56.8 seconds remaining in the half.
Instead of rolling a squib-kick on the following kickoff, Southside decided to kick the ball to Pinholster. The Panthers paid dearly for the decision when Pinholster found a lane down the right sideline before cutting to the opposite side of the field for an 85-yard kickoff return that tied the game 14-14 at halftime.
Fort Payne got the ball to start the second half and quickly took its first lead of the night.
Ellis scrambled up the middle for a 14-yard gain before Pinholster hurdled over a defender on the ground on his way to a 26-yard pickup.
A pair of quick screen passes to Shaddix and Kevin Hightower moved the ball to the Panther 1 before Pinholster ran it in to put the ‘Cats up 21-14 with 8:16 left in the third.
Fort Payne’s defense stood tall and forced a three-and-out to give the ball back to the offense with a chance to go up by two scores. Hightower got the drive off to a good start with a 9-yard run to the right, but Fort Payne failed to gain any yardage on their next two plays and had to punt.
Southside quickly faced fourth-and-9 on the following drive, but a fake punt turned into a 15-yard completion and moved the chains.
The Panthers then ran for 42 yards over their next five plays to set up first-and-goal at the start of the fourth quarter.
A quick run and a short completion netted no yardage for Southside on first and second down.
On third-and-goal, a pitch to Abernathy went nowhere as Fort Payne’s Nate Crane dragged him down in the backfield for a four-yard loss. Southside then lined up for a 30-yard field goal attempt, but the kick was pushed wide right and the score remained 21-14.
Fort Payne’s next play saw Pinholster shred the Southside defense on a 34-yard run across midfield. Junior Marquez and Shaddix picked up seven and 12 yards on the next two plays before the Wildcat drive stalled when Ellis was sacked near midfield.
McPherson’s following punt would have pinned the Panthers at their own 8-yard line, but a roughing the kicker penalty on the Panthers gave the ball and a fresh set of downs to the Wildcats.
Fort Payne struck in a flash again on the next play when Ellis connected with Shaddix down the seam for a 36-yard touchdown to put the ‘Cats up 28-14 with 3:53 left in regulation.
Southside picked up two first downs on its final drive of the night before a pair of sacks forced the Panthers into a fourth-and-22 situation. Southside fired a Hail Mary down the right sideline, but the pass was defended tightly by Conner Schrader to seal another win.
Southside continues region play this week with a home game against Pell City.