Photo: Etowah High’s Caleb Horton runs for a second quarter touchdown during the Blue Devils’ 15-12 victory over Pleasant Grove on Friday (Nov. 10). (Chris McCarthy/Messenger)
By Chris McCarthy, Publisher/Editor
Etowah had to endure a few tense moments in the second half, but the fifth-ranked Blue Devils hung on to post a 15-12 victory over Pleasant Grove on Thursday (Nov. 10) in the first round of the Class 5A state playoffs in Attalla.
Etowah (10-1) hosts Brooks (8-2) for a second-round game this Friday (Nov. 17).
The Blue Devils scored all their points in the first half for a 15-6 lead at intermission and had to rely on several key defensive stops over the final 24 minutes with the offense mustering only 18 yards and three first downs.
First, Etowah held on fourth down on the first possession of the second half. Then, after the Blue Devils punted on their initial drive and Pleasant Grove made it to the Etowah 1-yard line, the hosts stopped the Spartans on three straight plays. The visitors came away with no points when Dawson Eichorn’s 19-yard field goal attempt fell short at the third quarter buzzer.
‘That goal line stand was real big for us,” said Etowah head coach Drew Noles. “It’s a whole different game if that doesn’t happen. [Pleasant Grove] has a good football team; I don’t care if they’re 5-6. They’ve got good athletes and good coaches and capable of scoring on every play.”
But the Blue Devil offense continued to struggle, and Pleasant Grove took advantage of a short Etowah punt midway through the fourth quarter. Taking over at the EHS 45, the Spartans eventually arrived at the Blue Devil 10, where quarterback Zyquez Perryman found Xavier Hill in the end zone for six points. The two-point conversion pass failed, however, leaving the visitors trailing 15-12 with 4:16 left in the game.
Matters soon grew worse for Etowah, as the Blue Devils faced a third-down-and-14 at their own 42 while attempting to run out the clock. Etowah ran a pass play in an attempt get a first down, and Chris Atkins intercepted the ball with 1:23 on the clock.
The Blue Devil defense was up to the challenge, though, forcing four straight incomplete passes before taking possession with less than a minute remaining and running out the clock.
“There’s no doubt that we were conservative, and our defense stepped up big,” said Noles. “You don’t get points for [being] pretty. They moved the ball on us a little bit, but our defensive coaches did a great job. We also did a few things offensively that we had done yet this year.”
Noles pointed out that a number of his players were suffering from a virus, including several starters.
“Those kids were sick but they were able to be at school today and fight through it. Caleb Horton and Jesse Altman both had to get an IV before the game, so it was a character win for us.”
Pleasant Grove out-gained the Blue Devils by a 229 to 223 margin, but only 89 of those yards came on the ground.
For Etowah, Corey Thomas rushed for 78 yards on 21 carries, while Caleb Horton ran 11 times for 50 yards. DeRickey Wright completed 4 of 8 passes for 105 yards and a touchdown, all in the first half.
A Blue Devil turnover led to first score of the game when Atkins recovered a fumble at midfield. Three plays later, Perryman and Tyler Christopher hooked up for a 15-yard touchdown pass. The PAT failed, and the visitors led 6-0 at the 3:30 mark of the first quarter.
Pleasant Grove’s lone lead of the game came to an end on the ensuing offensive series. A 63-yard pass from Wright to Davian Smith set the hosts up at the Spartan 12, and with nine seconds left in the opening period Wright threw a 13-yard touchdown pass to Emil Smith.
Raul Hernandez nailed the extra point for a one-point Etowah advantage.
Lester Phillips’ fumble recovery on the next play from scrimmage did not lead to points, but with 8:33 left before halftime, the Blue Devils called Horton’s number eight straight times. The senior halfback responded with 36 yards, the last one a 1-yard TD run up the middle at 4:09.
The two-point conversion attempt was no good, leaving the hosts with a 15-6 lead at intermission.
Christopher paced the Spartan ground game with 49 yards on six carries, while Kavon Dunn finished with 47 yards on seven attempts. Perryman was 12 for 24 in passing for 140 yards, while Hill had four receptions for 57 yards.
Noles pointed out that his team and been in similar situations during the regular season and responded well.
“We’ve won games like this earlier in the year. Our team’s been tested. All that matters is that we play next week.”