By Cole Frederick/Sports Correspondent
The Etowah High Blue Devils held on for a 27-24 victory over the visiting Fort Payne Wildcats in a non-region game last Friday (Sept. 30) at Jim Glover Field in Attalla.
Etowah (5-1) led 27-10 late in the fourth quarter, but the Wildcats scored two touchdowns in 20 seconds to close the margin to only three points. Fort Payne converted on two onsides kicks earlier in the game, but Justin Harris recovered the final onsides kick attempt to secure the win for Etowah.
Etowah head coach Drew Noles said his team needs to improve on closing out games in the fourth quarter.
“We’ve improved in a lot of things this year, but closing out games would be one thing that’s something we’ve got to get better at,” Noles said. “To close this game out would’ve been good. That’s two games we’ve had that have come down like that in Guntersville and this one.”
It was a slow start for both teams as the defenses controlled the first half of the game. The Etowah defense continued its dominant ways early on, while the Blue Devil offense was able to capitalize on good field position on its second drive of the game.
Quarterback Derickey Wright led the Etowah offense down the field with a pair of long runs, and receiver DeAundrea Williams scored on an end-around from three yards out on fourth and goal for the first score of the game. Raul Hernandez’s extra point was successful, and Etowah led 7-0 with 44 seconds left in the first quarter.
Both offenses exchanged punts, and Fort Payne kicker and punter Evan McPherson took the game over with a series of kicks. First, McPherson booted an 84-yard punt that completely flipped the field position. After the Wildcats intercepted an Etowah pass, Fort Payne started a drive on the Blue Devil 28-yard line.
Etowah forced a three-and-out, but McPherson drilled a 55-yard field goal to close the gap to 7-3 with 3:05 left in the first half. The Etowah offense went three-and-out on its next drive, and Fort Payne quarterback Jay Tyler Ellis led the Wildcats on a four-play scoring drive after he connected with Matthew Shaddix for a 24-yard touchdown with 26 seconds remaining in the quarter.
McPherson converted his first onside kick attempt to start the second half, but the Blue Devil defense forced a three-and-out. Etowah scored on their second drive of the half after three long runs from Wright, and he punched the ball in on an eight-yard QB keeper to give his team a 14-10 lead with 3:29 left in the third quarter.
On Fort Payne’s next drive, Etowah defensive back Matthew Jones intercepted a pass that set up the Blue Devils with the ball on the Wildcat 38. The visitors couldn’t capitalize on that mistake, but when Fort Payne got the ball back, defensive end Emil Smith picked off Jay Tyler Ellis and returned the ball to the six-yard line. Cory Thomas scored three plays later from three yards out to extend the lead to 20-10 with 10:25 left in the fourth quarter.
The Blue Devils forced an Ellis fumble on the next play that was recovered by Carter Dingler, which set them up with another short field on the Fort Payne 21-yard line. On the second play of the drive, Caleb Horton broke loose for a 19-yard touchdown run to give his team a 27-10 lead with 9:04 remaining.
Fort Payne (3-2) strung together back-to-back scoring drives later in the quarter, but the Blue Devils did just enough to hold on for the victory.
“It wasn’t that we let up,” Noles said. “They’ve got a great kicker. He had a perfectly placed onsides kick. I’ve never seen a kicker control a game like that one did with an 84-yard punt and a 55-yard kick. He really did a great job, and give their guys a lot of credit. I’m proud of our guys too. We were very, very flat in the first half. I didn’t think we had a lot of energy. Our defense made some plays to give us a short field.”
Wright led all rushers with 13 carries for 116 yards and a touchdown before leaving the game with a concussion late in the third quarter. Horton rushed 10 times for 67 yards and a touchdown, and Thomas carried the ball 15 times for 86 yards and a score.
The Etowah defense held Fort Payne to negative 12 yards rushing on the night.
The Blue Devils return to Class 5A, Region 7 play next week as they travel to Arab.
“I thought we came out slow,” Noles said. “We need to come out faster. We’ve talked all the time about how we need to give ourselves a chance in the fourth quarter, but maybe I need to tell that means we can score in the first half.”