Photo: Southside’s Kenneth Bothwell (3) follows the blocking of Andrew Dunston (30) as Hokes Bluff’s Houston Edwards (56) and Ashton Gulledge (2) pursue during the Eagles’ 42-13 victory in high school football on Thursday (Aug. 30) at Southside. (Photo by Gary Wells)
By Cole Frederick/Sports Correspondent
It took Class 4A, No. 3 Hokes Bluff just over a quarter to shake off the first game jitters before storming past Southside for a 42-13 win on Thursday (Aug. 30) at Barney Hood Stadium.
Hokes Bluff has now defeated Southside in two consecutive meetings after losing six straight from 2011 to 2016.
The Eagles (1-0) and Panthers (0-2) played to a first quarter stalemate, but Southside struck first on the second play of the second quarter. Running back Kenneth Bothwell made amends for a first quarter fumble when he sprinted into the end zone for a 27-yard touchdown to give the Panthers a 6-0 lead.
Hokes Bluff’s first three drives stalled thanks to a bad shotgun snap in the red zone and an interception from Southside safety Blake Habyan. However, the offense finally started to click on the fourth drive.
The Panthers were hit with a heavy dosage of Hokes Bluff running back Darrian Meads in the second quarter. Meads had runs of 12, 10 and nine yards to get the Eagles into the red zone. On the 11th play of the drive, quarterback Ashton Gulledge scampered for a seven-yard touchdown on a quarterback bootleg. Ethan Whitcomb’s extra point gave the Eagles a 7-6 lead with just over five minutes remaining until halftime.
“My play-calling wasn’t very good (in the first quarter),” said Hokes Bluff coach Mike Robertson. “[Southside] went man-to-man and fooled me a couple of times, and we went deep. I just wanted them to know that Ashton can throw deep. They had eight men in the box. (Southside lineman Chance Moon) at nose (guard) was whipping us. We didn’t match up well there. I finally got an idea of which way he was slanting so I could know which way to go.”
Southside was forced to punt on its ensuing drive. Hokes Bluff’s Braydon Hill caught the ball over his shoulder on his own 17-yard line and he evaded several Panther defenders as he found a seam down the Southside sideline. After a tightrope down the sideline, Hill cut back across the field and pranced into the end zone for an 83-yard touchdown.
Whitcomb connected on his second extra point of the night, and the Eagles led 14-6 with 2:32 remaining until halftime. On the Panthers’ next drive, Hokes Bluff defender Carson Eubanks intercepted the ball. The Eagles couldn’t convert the turnover into points, however, and they carried a 14-6 lead into locker room.
Hokes Bluff utilized a more balanced attack on its opening drive of the third quarter. Gulledge connected with Tristin Billingsley for a 40-yard pass on the third play of the drive. Three plays later, Gulledge found Hill on a vertical route for a 36-yard touchdown to extend the lead to 21-6 with nine minutes left in the quarter.
Southside went three-and-out on its next drive, and the Eagles capitalized on excellent field position. On the third play of the series, Gulledge scrambled to his left, evaded two Southside defenders, set his feet and found Hill wide open behind the Panther secondary for a 40-yard touchdown. Whitcomb’s fourth extra point of the night gave Hokes Bluff a 28-6 lead with 5:46 remaining in the third quarter.
Southside fumbled on the ensuing kickoff and Whitcomb recovered the ball. However, the Eagles turned the ball right back over after another bad shotgun snap sailed over Gulledge’s head.
The Panthers started in Hokes Bluff territory, and quarterback Matthew Rich seemingly found Blake Reed for a 27-yard touchdown. The Panthers were flagged for an ineligible player
downfield, however, and the touchdown was taken off the board. Two plays later, Eubanks recorded his second interception to end the Southside scoring threat.
Hokes Bluff carried a 28-6 lead into the fourth quarter and handed the game over to Meads. On the second play of the period, Meads dashed into the end zone for a 29-yard touchdown to put the game out of reach.
Bothwell scored his second touchdown of the evening on a 73-yard run with four minutes remaining in the game, but Meads responded with a 50-yard touchdown of his own to extend the lead to 42-13.
Meads rushed for 201 yards and two touchdowns on 25 carries. He credited his offensive line with opening up running lanes for him.
“Our line started getting a good push on them (in the second quarter),” Meads said. “They were stacking the box, but the line got on them and gave me enough running room. I need to see the holes better because I missed a couple.”
Meads also gave credit to Gulledge, who made his first start at quarterback for the Eagles. Gulledge completed six of his nine passes for 154 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. He also rushed for 29 yards and a touchdown on 11 carries.
“Ashton is a good player,” he said. “It’s his first year, and he did well.”
Gulledge and Meads, both juniors, led the Eagles to nearly 400 yards of offense in the season opener. The Panthers only mustered 257 yards of total offense.
In addition to the 83-yard punt return for a touchdown, Hill caught three passes for 86 yards and two touchdowns. He also forced a fumble in the first quarter that was recovered by linebacker Hunter Burke.
Sophomore linebacker Will Clemons led the Eagles with 10 tackles, including 1.5 tackles for a loss. Eubanks patrolled the secondary with two interceptions.
Hokes Bluff kept Bothwell in check for most of the night, but the senior still managed to rush for 167 yards on 15 carries with two scores.
Southside coach Ron Daugherty said his team must start executing more effectively and noted that responsibility starts with him as head coach.
“Hokes Bluff does what they do and they do it well,” Daugherty said. “They execute and don’t make mistakes. Our young, inexperienced team started making mistakes. There are so many things we felt good about executing. We maybe did it a couple of times, but then the next time the kid lined up on the wrong side. That all goes back on us. We have to have them ready to execute.”
The Panthers visit Sardis on Friday, Sept. 7 for the first Class 5A, Region 6 game for both teams. The two Etowah County schools haven’t played since 1977, when Southside won 14-0. Daugherty said he is still confident in his team entering next week’s pivotal region contest.
“I told them that this is the time when guys step us as leaders and start learning, so when we get into region play, we don’t make those mistakes,” he said. “We still feel good about what we can do. It’s just a matter of getting them to where they can do that when the lights are on.”
Hokes Bluff also begins region play on Friday as the Eagles travel to White Plains for a Class 4A, Region 6 matchup. Hokes Bluff is 6-0 all-time against the Wildcats, including last year’s 49-19 victory.
Robertson said the key to success for his team is more consistency on both sides of the ball.
“I know offensively, early in the game, we’re not getting our heads across,” he said. “Defensively, I thought our linebackers did well. We need to try to get more consistent and we need to get in better shape.”