Photo: Gadsden City’s Donnie Ryan (left) pursues Etowah’s Reggie Phillips during the Blue Devils’ 32-23 victory in high school football on Thursday (Aug. 23) in Attalla. (Chris McCarthy/Messenger)
By Chris McCarthy, Publisher/Editor
The overflow crowd at James Glover Field certainly got its money’s worth on Thursday.
The latest meeting between the Gadsden City and Etowah High football teams was the most exciting one yet, with the Class 5A, No. 2 Blue Devils pulling out 32-23 victory over the 7A Titans in Attalla. It was Etowah’s first-ever win in the five-game series.
Turnovers proved to be the deciding factor, as Etowah turned four GCHS miscues into 20 points. The most crucial of those points came with a little over a minute left in the game.
The Blue Devils’ 13-point halftime lead was long gone after Gadsden City scored 16 points in less than two minutes to take a 23-20 advantage. The Titans had just put together a goal line stand in which they stuffed Etowah on four straight running plays inside the GCHS 3-yard line. With 2:16 on the clock, Gadsden City could run out the clock with a couple of first downs.
A seven-yard run by Jamontez Woods gave visitors some breathing room.
But on the next play a mishandled snap put the ball on the ground, which Etowah senior defensive end Jamin Graham picked up and ran into the end zone for the touchdown and a three-point Etowah lead with 1:15 remaining.
Gadsden City recovered the ensuing fake PAT attempt, however, keeping it a one-possession game.
“That was a terrible call on my part,” said Etowah head coach Drew Noles. “I thought [GCHS] was going to block the kick.”
The following Titan possession was hampered by a sack from defensive end Alex Howard and a pass break-up by linebacker Jarren Wright, but on a third down and 22, quarterback DeMarcus Macon found Jaquan Woods for 21 yards.
A 15-yard scramble by Macon moved the visitors into Etowah territory, and he soon hit Trey Blount for 21 yards and first down inside the EHS 20. But the Titans elected not to attempt a field goal with eight seconds on the clock, instead trying for the winning points via a rushing play. Gadsden City mishandled the ball, and Graham again was Johnny on the Spot with a fumble recovery that went for 73 yards and a touchdown as time expired.
“I think our guys played with a lot of character and lot of passion tonight,” said Noles. “We were very concerned about our depth, and we had guys playing tonight who didn’t think that they’d play.”
Coming out of halftime ahead 20-7, the Blue Devils managed only 11 total yards of offense in the third quarter. Gadsden City first two possession ended in punts, but the Titans downed the second punt at the EHS 1. Five plays later, Gadsden City recovered a fumble at the GCHS 23, and Macon and Carte’un Mitchell teamed up for a touchdown pass on the next play. Carlos Flores pushed through the extra point, pulling the visitors within 20-14 the 2:03 mark of the third period.
Etowah then went three-and-out on its next drive, and with the ball on the Blue Devil 18-yard line, the snap for a point sailed into the end zone, where the Titans recovered for a safety with 35 seconds left in the quarter.
Gadsden City quite wasn’t finished with its late rally. On the next play from scrimmage, Macon eluded the EHS defense for a 61-yard touchdown, and Flores’ PAT added the PAT for a 23-20 lead with 20 seconds left in the third.
Noles acknowledged that his two-way players were running out of gas at that point.
“We hit a wall, and I didn’t think the third quarter was ever going to end,” said Noles. “They were wearing us down and we were really fatigued and just trying to survive. Until the middle of the third quarter, I thought we tackled pretty well. But in a matter of two minutes, we went from being in pretty good shape to not being in shape. I also saw some doubt and some selfishness, and that’s something we’re not pleased with.”
In addition, Wright left the game midway late in the quarter after a sack.
“That hurt us, because DeRickey is one of our best players,” said Noles.
Midway through the fourth quarter, however, Etowah linebacker Jarren Wright tackled Macon on a fourth down fake punt attempt, and the Blue Devils took over at their own 40. The hosts drove to the GCHS 1 before being denied four straight times, but Graham’s big play shortly thereafter sparked Etowah’s comeback.
“We had the game in hand and it slipped away from us, and that’s part of being a young team,” said GCHS head coach Bart Sessions. “I can’t tell you have many times we’ve started a drive first and 15 because of a penalty. Obviously, you can’t do that and expect to move the football.
I’ve got a of respect for Etowah; they’ve got a great team and has a great season in front of them.”
Gadsden City outgained Etowah, 277 to 260, in total yardage. For the Blue Devils, Trent Davis rushed for 105 yards on 18 carries, while NyNy Davis ran seven times for 68 yards. Brady Troup completed 8 of 17 passes for 64 yards, while Emil Smith had six receptions for 60 yards.
The Titan struck first and struck quickly. After Etowah’s game-opening possession ended in a punt, Gadsden City’s second play from scrimmage resulted in Jalen Robinson’s 76-yard touchdown pass to Jamontez Woods at 8:47 of the first quarter.
But the hosts caught up following the first of Gadsden City’s four turnovers. On a third and 14 deep inside Titan territory, Ollie Finch picked off a pass and returned it 20 yards into the end zone. Eric Edge added the extra point at 4:07.
The ensuing GCHS series ended with a fumble recovery by Etowah’s Dacota Garrard-Casey but did not lead to points. The next Blue Devil drive did, as Wright’s 8-yard touchdown run at 7:20 of the second period polished off a nine-play, 74-yard possession.
The Titans once more went three-and-out, and the hosts responded with a 12-play 56-yard drive that consumed almost six minutes off the clock and ended with Davis’ 14-tard touchdown run with 39 seconds left in the first half.
Gadsden City hosts Oxford this Friday (Aug. 31).
“I’m proud of us for how we bounced back in the second half,” said Sessions. “We just have to correct some simple mistakes. If we can do that while we gain some experience, we’ll have a fine season. But win, lose or draw, we’re going to love these kids.”
For Gadsden City, Woods carried the ball 14 times for 88 yards, while Macon was 8 for 11 in passing for 122 yards.
“This is a big win for us, and I think if we get better and continue to improve, we’ll be okay,” said Noles. “But we’re not consistent at all and we’ve got a long way to go. Gadsden City has some great players and they’re going to have a great season,” said Noles. “But I’m already thinking about Moody (on Aug. 31).”
Noles appreciated the civil atmosphere of the teams’ first meeting in nine years.
“I hope we created an atmosphere tonight that was family-friendly and something that people want to be a part of,” said Noles. “A high school football game is a good place to be, and I thought that everything leading up to this game, during the game and after the game was classy. That’s what it’s all about, and I hope that it continues.”