Messenger file photo by Alex Chaney
By Cole Frederick/Sports Correspondent
The battle of unbeatens for the Class 4A, Region 6 title between No. 2 Hokes Bluff and No. 3 Jacksonville was ultimately decided by a pair of two-point conversions last Friday (Oct. 26).
Jacksonville went into Mike Robertson Stadium and escaped with a 16-14 victory over Hokes Bluff, giving the Golden Eagles their third region championship in school history.
Trailing by two points with under six minutes remaining, the Eagles (8-1, 6-1) faced a fourth down and 4 on the Jacksonville 34-yard line. Hokes Bluff quarterback Ashton Gulledge (pictured above), who played through an injury to his bicep, kept the ball on a designed run and appeared to have the first down. However, the ball was marked just short of the line to gain, and Jacksonville took over on its own 30.
The Hokes Bluff defense forced a punt to give the offense another chance to score, and the Eagles took over on their own 17-yard line with 2:30 left in the game and no timeouts. Gulledge hit a wide-open Tristan Billingsley on second down for a 25-yard gain, and the hosts earned 15 more yards on a personal foul penalty against Jacksonville.
An offensive pass interference call on Hokes Bluff pushed the Eagles back into their own territory, however, putting them in a bind with a fourth-and-21 situation. Gulledge threw a jump ball in the direction of several of his receivers and Jackson Fielding came down with the catch for 29 yards and a first down.
But Hokes Bluff moved backwards on its next two plays following a false start and a two-yard loss by running back Darrian Meads. On third-and-17, the Golden Eagles were called for pass interference, which moved the ball to the Jacksonville 19-yard line and gave the Eagles a more manageable third down and 2. Meads ran for the first down and Gulledge hurried the offense to the line to spike the ball.
On second-and-10, Gulledge took the snap out of the shotgun formation. However, an official mysteriously blew his whistle, and players from both teams momentarily stood still. Nevertheless, officials signaled for the play to continue, and Gulledge was forced out of bounds for a five-yard loss. Gulledge’s third down fade to Braydon Hill fell incomplete, and the Eagles were forced to settle for a 38-yard field goal attempt. The kick fell short, and Jacksonville improved to 10-0 in the regular season for the first time in school history.
“It was a good, hard fought game,” said Hokes Bluff coach Mike Robertson. “Defensively, I thought we played pretty well [in] holding them to 16 points and two touchdowns. We gave up the two two-point conversions, and that’s just so important. That killed us. That’s the difference in the game. They made their two-point conversions.”
Neither offense generated anything in the first quarter, but the Eagles finally sustained a long drive early in the second frame. The Golden Eagles were stout in the red zone, however, and they forced a long, missed field goal attempt.
On Jacksonville’s ensuing drive, the visitors marched deep into Hokes Bluff territory. However, the Eagles pressured Jacksonville quarterback Luke Jackson and forced a fumble. Linebacker Will Clemons recovered the ball and returned it to the Jacksonville 44-yard line.
After a 13-yard gain by Meads, Eagle quarterback Ashton Gulledge found fullback Hunter Burke for a 10-yard gain to move the ball into the red zone. Two plays later, Gulledge connected with Burke again for another 10-yard gain to set up a first-and-goal at the 1-yard line. Gulledge punched the ball in himself on the next play to give the Eagles a 7-0 lead with 2:56 remaining in the second quarter.
On the first play of Jacksonville’s following drive, Jackson was intercepted by Clemons, who returned the ball to the Golden Eagle 46. Meads took the handoff on the very next play and ran over multiple Jacksonville defenders en route to a 46-yard touchdown run to extend the lead to 14-0 with 2:30 left in the first half.
Despite the two-score deficit, the Jacksonville offense responded quickly and effectively, especially through the air. Jackson found receiver Yessman Green three times for 51 yards on the drive, including a 21-yard gain to set up the Golden Eagles on the Hokes Bluff 1-yard line. Running back Rontarius Wiggins scored on the next play to close the gap to 14-6. Wiggins, who has a handful of Division 1 scholarship offers, ran in the two-point conversion to make the score 14-8 at the half.
On Hokes Bluff’s first drive of the third quarter, Meads guided the offense down the field on several long runs, including a 23-yard gain. The Eagles made their way into the red zone on an eight-yard pass on third-and-9, which left them with a fourth-and-1 on the Jacksonville 12-yard line. Robertson opted to kick the field goal, and the kicked just missed wide left.
“Fourth-and-one and a half… it’s a long one and a half,” Robertson said. “They were just penetrating so much and I was afraid they’d pinch by us. I thought if we got the three [points] and went up [by] nine, the pressure goes to them. They know they have to score twice.”
Jacksonville responded with a long drive into Hokes Bluff territory after a heavy dosage of Wiggins. The Golden Eagles were faced with a fourth-and-3 on the Hokes Bluff 23-yard line, and Jackson found Wiggins in the flat. However, the Eagles’ defense corralled him after only a one-yard gain to force the turnover on downs.
Hokes Bluff’s next drive ended with a turnover on downs in Jacksonville territory, and the Golden Eagles took advantage on the following series. Jackson hit receiver Jewels Gray for a 34-yard gain to move the ball into Eagle territory, and Jackson again connected with Gray two plays later for a 23-yard touchdown to tie the game at 14-14.
The Golden Eagles went back to Wiggins on the two-point try, and he converted to give his team a 16-14 advantage with 11:53 remaining in the game. That score proved to be the game-winning touchdown and conversion, as the Eagles lost for the first time this season.
“We had chances and opportunities for some explosive plays,” said Robertson. “Give (Jacksonville) credit. They tackled Darrian after about 30-yard runs. We bogged down about the 25. I may have sat on it a little too much down there. They’ve got a good team. I think we’re still better than them. We should be. (Wiggins) is good. I didn’t do a good job… It’s going to put us in a bad (playoff) bracket, but you have to beat good teams (in the playoffs) no matter what.”
Meads led the way offensively for the Eagles, as he carried the ball 33 times for 218 yards and a touchdown. Gulledge completed 10-of-22 passes for 148 yards along with his rushing touchdown.
Carson Eubanks led Hokes Bluff defensively with nine tackles, followed by Gulledge with eight and Fielding and Austin Elder with five each. Elder also had a sack.
The Eagles outgained Jacksonville 388 to 328 and mostly kept Wiggins in check as he rushed 28 times for 96 yards and a score. Jackson completed 18-of-21 passes for 238 yards, one touchdown and one interception, while Gray snagged six passes for 107 yards and a touchdown.
Hokes Bluff travels to Sardis on Friday (Nov. 2) to finish the regular season before returning home to host Central-Florence in the first round of the Class 4A playoffs. If the Eagles win, they likely would face undefeated North Jackson in the second round.