By Chris McCarthy/Editor
Etowah’s 20-13 win over Fort Payne on Friday didn’t decide the Class 5A, Region 7 title by any means, but the Blue Devils certainly overcame their first big obstacle of the 2013 season.
After an uneven performance in the contest’s first 24 minutes, Etowah put together a strong second half on both sides of the ball to post a 21-10 victory at Jim Glover Field.
The Blue Devil defense in particular stepped it up a notch after halftime, limiting the Wildcats to 74 yards, including just nine on the ground. Of Fort Payne’s six second-half possessions, two ended on interceptions, three on failed fourth down conversion attempts and one on a punt.
The first Etowah pick came courtesy of Tevin Peterson on the visitors’ first play from scrimmage in the third quarter.
Consecutive big gains by senior halfback Devin Horton – the first for 36 yards, followed by a 24-yard scamper – put the ball at the Wildcat 1, where Marquavious Britton punched it in for the score.
Joe Mandragon added the extra point, and instead of trailing 10-7, the hosts went ahead 14-10.
The Wildcats made it to the Blue Devil 35 early in the fourth quarter, but junior linebacker G.Q. Harwick ended that threat with an interception.
The Etowah offense went three-and-out on its next two series, however, and the Wildcats remained within striking distance.
With 6:10 left in the game, Fort Payne quarterback Alan Smith converted two key third down attempts to advance the ‘Cats to the Blue Devil 45. But on a fourth down and 6 senior defensive end Zack Gamblin sacked Smith for a 10-yard loss, giving the the Attalla squad the ball at the Wildcat 46 with just under three minutes to play.
The Etowah offense immediately took advantage of the good field position when Paul Ruiz ripped off a 45-yard run. Two plays later Horton rammed through the Wildcat defense for the touchdown, and for all intents and purposes, the win.
With Mandragon’s extra point, Etowah went ahead 21-10 with 2:04 on the clock.
Fort Payne advanced to the Blue Devil 13 before turning the ball over on downs in the final seconds.
“We’ve got some playmakers and we finally made some plays in the second half,” said Noles. “We got a little bit of rhythm going in our running game, which opened up some things in our passing game. We’re 2-0 and 1-0 in the region, so we’re standing pretty good, but we’ve got a long way to go. We’re a work in progress. But if these guys completely buy into what we’re trying to do, I think there’s good days ahead for us.”
Etowah wound up outgaining Fort Payne in total yards, 243 to 214.
Ruiz rushed for 62 yards on six carries, while Horton ran seven times for 60 yards.
Kordell Rudolph completed 6-of 4 passes for 102 yards.
Fort Payne scored off the game’s first possession, a 12-play, 56-yard drive that ended on Derian Rojo’s 27-yard field goal at 5:16 of the first quarter.
Meanwhile, the Blue Devils’ two first-quarter series lasted all of eight play and netted -8 yards.
The third time was the charm for the hosts, however. On third and 9 from the Etowah 17, Rudolph hit Peterson in stride at midfield, and the senior receiver out-raced the Wildcat defense for the end zone. Mandragon pushed through the PAT for a 7-3 lead at the 5:55 mark of the second period.
One play previously from scrimmage before the score, Rudolph’s 83-yard touchdown pass to Lamar Thomas was nullified by an illegal block penalty.
The four-point advantage didn’t last long. On the ensuing possession, Fort Payne went up 10-7 on Smith’s 8-yard touchdown pass to Daruice Maddox with 2:13 left in the half.
“I thought we lost our composure in the first half, and that began with me,” said Noles. “That’s something that we cannot do, and I take full responsibility for that. I don’t think anything went good for us in the first half. We couldn’t get anything going offensively, but you’ve got to give a lot of credit to Fort Payne in the way they kept the ball away from us. I think we only had 15 snaps the whole first half.”
Smith was 17-for-27 in passing for 105 yards, with 42 of those yards coming in the game’s final series.
Devonta McKenzie the the Wildcats in rushing with 13 carries for 50 yards.
“That fact that we were only down by three [points] at the half was a positive, but we’ve got to put four quarters together,” said Noles. “But It was a great atmosphere for high school football tonight, and it was good to the the Etowah side of the stands almost full. We’re building character as a team, and that’s something that we’re really stressing.”
Etowah continues region play on Friday with a visit to Brewer.