By Chris McCarthy/Editor
Due large part to clutch special teams play, Gadsden City High will participate in the state football semifinals for the second time in the past three years.
Trailing second-ranked and undefeated Hewitt-Trussville by double digits midway through the fourth quarter, the visiting Titans (7-5) scored two touchdowns off a pair of turnovers on the way to a 29-28 victory in the Class 7A quarterfinal round.
GCHS will host No. 4 Hoover this week, with the winner qualifying for the state championship game later this month in Auburn. Hoover defeated Gadsden City, 42-7, in the 2014 semifinals.
Matters did not look promising for the Titans early in the final period.
After Jonathan Kilgo’s 32-yard field goal drew GCHS within 21-16 at the 2:18 mark of the third quarter, the Huskies (11-1) built a 12-point advantage with Elliott McElwain’s 36-yard touchdown run six seconds into the fourth.
The ensuing Titan drive ended on the GCHS 37 when Hewitt-Trussville held on a fake punt attempt by the Titans on fourth down and 7. The hosts eventually brought the ball to the 18, where they looked to go up by 13 points with a 35-yard field goal with 7:11 left.
The ball never made it past the line of scrimmage.
Jer’Michael Isom blocked the kick attempt, and LeMarcus Harvey scooped the ball up and made it to the Husky 34 before being tackled.
“I tell our guys on special teams that if [the opposing team] is going to try a 35 to 50-yard field goal and [the ball] is on the hash, somebody has to get ready to scoop it, because we are going to block it,” said GCHS head coach Matt Scott.
Three plays later, quarterback Ryan Sparks found Jamontavious Woods in the end zone from 26 yards out. Kilgo tacked on the PAT, cutting the deficit to 28-23 with 5:33 left.
Any plans on the part of Hewitt-Trussville to drain the game clock with a run-heavy possession vanished on the following kickoff. The returner fumbled the ball and Gadsden City’s Jaelyn Fleming recovered at the HT 27.
A pass interference penalty and an 11-yard run by Damon Williams helped move the ball to the 15, from where Williams caught a 12-yard TD pass from Sparks on fourth down. The two-point conversion attempt failed, but GCHS had one-point lead with 3:10 remaining.
“All you can do in that situation is go to one of your best players and give him a chance make a play, and he did,” said Scott. “Ryan made a good throw and Damon made a phenomenal play.”
With three minutes and change to work with, Hewitt-Trussville used pass plays of 13, 11 and seven yards to reach the Titan 45. But the Huskies came up empty on a a fourth down conversion attempt, allowing Gadsden City to run out the final 38 seconds and set up the semifinal showdown with Hoover.
Fleming rushed 24 times for 162 yards and a touchdown while catching four passes for 75 yards and a score. Williams ran for 110 yards on 28 carries, while Sparks was 5 for 11 in passing for 100 yards. He also rushed for a touchdown.
Scott was pleased but not surprised by the work of his special teams.
“I can’t tell you how much time we spend on special teams in practice,” he said. “That block was the same one we used last week [against Mountain Brook], and we have a pretty good scheme to [blocking a punt].
“It’s also tough on a team like Hewitt, who has been blowing by everybody and they get into a situation where they’re behind the eight ball a little bit. But we haven’t played a game this year where we weren’t in that type of situation, so our guys knew how to respond.”
Scott noted that holding the potent Hewitt-Trussville offense to eight possessions including three in the first half – was a key factor in the win.
“I think [Hewitt-Trussville] averaged around 12 possessions a game, and I told our guys last Sunday that we’d lose if they snapped the ball 80 times. We had to possess the ball on offense, get some timely play-action passes and run the clock.”
The opening drive of the contest covered 57 yards in 14 plays and consumed more than half of the first quarter. The lengthy possession did not result in points for the Titans, however, as a 31-yard field goal attempt fell short.
The hosts responded with an eight-play, 80-yard series that was capped by a 2-yard touchdown run by Grayson Cash. Parker Colburn’s PAT put the Huskies up 7-0 at 3:03 of the opening frame.
Gadsden City found success in its second possession. Highlighted by a 26-yard pass from Sparks to Fleming, the 14-play, 65-yard drive yielded Sparks’ 1-yard touchdown keeper. But the extra point was blocked, leaving GCHS at a 7-6 disadvantage at the 8:14 mark of the second quarter.
It didn’t take long for Hewitt-Trussville to re-take the lead. It looked as if the Huskies would be forced to punt from midfield, but the hosts went for it on a fourth and 7, and quarterback Connor Adair and receiver Logan Pitts connected for a touchdown. The PAT was good, giving the hosts a 14-6 lead at the six-minute mark of the second quarter.
Gadsden City answered on the next series, during which Sparks did not attempt a pass but instead alternated handoffs to Fleming and Williams. Fleming polished off the drive with a 35-yard touchdown run, closing the gap to 14-13 with 1:36 left before halftime.
“I’m not real big into pre-game speeches, but the one things I always tell our guys is that they’ve got handle the highs and lows of a game,” said Scott. “They’ve been doing a good job with that over the past several weeks. If somebody else has played the type of schedule that we’ve played this year, I’d like to see it. Our defense has been great all year, and we knew that if our offense had time to mature and come around, we’d be okay.”