Photo caption: Etowah’s Justin Harris (3) tackles Southside’s Kenneth Bothwell as Jarren Wright (33) closes in during the Blue Devils’ 17-3 victory in high school football last Friday (Aug. 25) in Attalla. (Photo by Gary Wells)
By Cole Frederick/Sports Correspondent
The Etowah Blue Devils took advantage of a dominant defensive performance to stifle the Southside Panthers, 17-3, for a season-opening win last Friday (Aug. 25) at Jim Glover Field in Attalla.
The Panthers mustered only 109 yards of offensive throughout the entire game, and the Etowah defense limited the visitors to just 14 yards in the second half.
“I thought the defense played well all night,” said Etowah head coach Drew Noles. “I thought we had some really big plays from our defensive front, our secondary played lights out and challenged them all night, and our linebackers really stepped up.”
Etowah (1-0) received the ball to start the game, but a Blue Devil fumble set up the Panthers with great starting field position at the Etowah 43-yard line. Southside methodically moved the ball down the field before settling for a 31-yard field goal from kicker Nolan Johnson to give the Panthers a 3-0 lead with 5:27 remaining in the first quarter.
The Blue Devil offense failed to generate anything on the next drive due to several penalties. Southside defensive back Dylan Brooks intercepted a pass in the end zone, and Brooks returned the ball to the Panther 1-yard line. The Panthers couldn’t move the ball against the Blue Devils’ stout defensive front, and running back Kenneth Bothwell was intercepted on third down by Etowah safety Caleb Horton.
More penalties forced Etowah to kick a field goal on its ensuing possession despite excellent starting field position. Kicker Raul Hernandez connected on a 24-yard field goal to notch the score at 3-3 with 11:22 remaining in the second quarter.
Neither team could move the ball on their following drive, and Southside started its fourth drive of the game on its own 7. The Panthers fumbled on the third play of the drive, and the ball was scooped and scored by Etowah defensive end Jamin Graham for the first touchdown of the season. Hernandez’s extra point was good, and the Blue Devils led 10-3 with 6:43 left until half time.
A fumble cut short the next Blue Devils’ next drive, but the Southside offense couldn’t capitalize on the mistake. Etowah carried a 10-3 advantage into the locker room.
Southside (0-1) had the ball first to start the second half, but Ray Kelley came up with an interception on the second play of the drive and returned the ball to the Southside 10. However, the Blue Devils’ red zone woes continued when the offensive stalled and Hernandez’s 30-yard field goal attempt was blocked.
The Panthers had another chance to score after they forced and recovered a fumble in Etowah territory, but the Blue Devil defense rose to the challenge yet again for another defensive stand.
Southside’s defense had a bend-but-don’t-break mentality throughout the night, but the Blue Devil offense finally broke through in the fourth quarter.
Etowah had a fourth-and-2 from the Southside 34-yard line when Caleb Horton burst through the line and exploded for a 34-yard touchdown to seal the game. After the extra point, Etowah led 17-3 with 7:06 remaining in the contest.
Noles said he is proud of his team for “sticking with the plan” despite typical first game mistakes.
“The positive is that we won,” Noles said. “But we played so ugly, so there’s definitely room to grow on. It takes a team effort and we’ve got to get better. We’re glad to be 1-0. But we’ll look at it on film and see what it looked like.
“You expect mistakes in the first game and you prepare your team for that. I was proud that we were able to come out at the end and run the football like we wanted to run it.”
Senior running back Cory Thomas led the Blue Devil offense with 21 carries for 134 yards. Horton carried the ball 13 times for 89 yards and a touchdown. Quarterback Derickey Wright threw for 43 yards, including a 39-yard pass to Emil Smith, who snagged the ball in impressive fashion.
Southside head coach Ron Daugherty said he didn’t think his offense executed well, but he was proud of his defense’s effort.
“We had two turnovers that led to 10 points,” Daugherty said. “Against a good team like that with us playing so many kids both sides of the ball, we just can’t survive when we do that.
“I was very proud of our defense. I thought they played lights out against a team that has weapons all over the field. I’m very proud of them, and hopefully we’ll come back better offensively.”
Fullback Andrew Dunston led the Panther offense with 32 yards rushing. Griffin threw for 34 yards on the night.
The Panthers play another non-region game next Thursday (Aug. 31) as they travel to take on Etowah County rival Hokes Bluff. Daugherty said that his team must take care of the ball when they take on the Eagles.
“We have to limit our mistakes,” he said. “We have a couple of kids that obviously weren’t ready for the number of plays they played and started cramping. Of course, that’s not their fault. It’s a hot, humid night, and it’s a product of us playing so many plays on both sides of the ball. With us having low numbers and a big freshman class, that’s what we have to do.”
Etowah is also plays out of the region next week as the Blue Devils take on Madison County in Gurley. Noles said Madison County’s offense will look much different than Southside’s, but he expects his team to make improvements throughout the next week.
“It’ll be all different because now we’ll go from a five-man front to a spread-type defense” Noles said. “They have tremendous speed and they will be a great offensive team. It’s going to be a completely different type of game because this week we played five defensive linemen all night long. Next week, we’ll probably play three or four all night long.
“Every week’s pretty tough for us.”