Photo: Southside High’s Michael Rich (left) tries to get off a pass as Hokes Bluff’s Will Clemons closes in during the Panthers’ 21-14 victory last Thursday (Aug. 27) at SHS. (Courtesy of Gary Wells)
By Cole Frederick/Sports Correspondent
Southside erased a 14-point deficit and a three-game losing streak to Hokes Bluff in a muddy, old-school slugfest where the Panthers prevailed, 21-14, on Thursday (Aug. 27) at Barney-Hood Stadium.
With the score tied 14-14, the Panthers (2-0) faced a third-and-9 from the Hokes Bluff 19-yard line with under seven minutes remaining. Southside quarterback Michael Rich dropped back to pass, evaded the rush, scrambled on the left side of the field and sprinted past the Eagles’ defenders for the touchdown.
“(Hokes Bluff) was running a Cover 2,” Rich said about his touchdown run. “We had smash concept called the hitch and the corner. I wanted that… they moved a safety towards the middle of the field. They moved the other safety towards the pylon, and I couldn’t get that ball in, and (Hokes Bluff) did a great job on that.
“Aulden (Battles) came open a little late, but I didn’t see it, so I just tucked it and ran and hoped for the best and tried to gain as many yards as I could. My guys blocked on my backside for me, and I had a lot of open ground and I took it.”
On the first play of the Eagles’ ensuing possession, running back Tucker Griffin broke loose for a 52-yard run down to the Southside 23-yard line. However, Hokes Bluff fumbled the next two plays, and Southside’s Hayden Fry recovered the second fumble with 5:35 left in the game.
The Panthers nearly put the game away on their final drive after Rich connected with Battles for a 27-yard gain, but the Eagles (0-1) forced a turnover on downs with 2:09 remaining in the fourth. However, Hokes Bluff lost five yards on its last four plays of the game and Southside held on for the victory.
Southside head coach Gary Nelson was proud of how his team battled back after an early two-touchdown deficit.
“We made some mistakes early that really gave them a chance to jump out on us,” Nelson said. “You did worry this team would fold up down 14-0 because past history kind of tells you that. I really think it’s a new day. Belief’s a powerful thing. Our kids believe in what they’re doing. They believe they’re going to make plays.”
The first quarter belonged to the visitors.
Southside received the opening kickoff, but a mishandled handoff on the second play from scrimmage resulted in Hokes Bluff taking over on the Panther 28-yard line. Hokes Bluff head coach Mike Robertson called for seven straight runs from Griffin, and the junior delivered on a 3-yard touchdown for the opening score of the game. The Eagles took a 7-0 lead with 8:05 remaining in the opening frame.
Southside responded with a 14-play drive deep into Hokes Bluff territory, but the series stalled after a botched snap on fourth down. Eagle quarterback Connor Faulkner found Jaylen Simmons for a 21-yard pass on second down and running back Noah Sprayberry carried three times for 24 yards to move the ball into the red zone to end the first quarter.
On the first play of the second quarter, Robertson dialed up a bootleg pass from Faulkner to fullback Hunter Burke, who scored from 19 yards out to give the Eagles a 14-0 advantage 10 seconds into the second quarter.
Hokes Bluff kept Southside running back Carnel Davis bottled up for most of the night, but the senior broke loose on the first play of the following drive for a 63-yard run. Two plays later, Eli Martin found the end zone for a 22-yard score to cut the deficit to 14-7 with 10:29 left in the first half.
“What broke the game open once again was Carnel Davis having a huge run that set up Eli Martin on a score,” Nelson said. “That’s two special human beings right there. Two guys who do everything the right way, not just as players, but as people. We talk about the Panther Way – we want to take what’s in them and bottle it up and give it to everyone else. At the end of the day, your kids who are special and who are bought in make plays to give you a chance to claw back in, and then everyone starts to believe a little bit.”
Following an exchange of punts, the Eagles mounted a promising drive late in the first half. But the Panthers forced a fumble, and defensive back Taylor Carr recovered the ball on the Southside 44.
After Rich ran for 27 yards on the first two plays of the drive, the Panthers found the end zone
on a very peculiar scoring play. Rich hit Battles on a quick pass, and the Eagles forced Battles to fumble. After several players failed to recover the ball, Davis scooped it up on the 32-yard line and dashed down the sideline for the touchdown to tie the game at 14-14 with 2:19 remaining in the half.
“We throw the ‘now’ screen, and Cody (Roberts) delivers a great block on the corner for Aulden,” said Nelson. “Carnel just had the wherewithal of being an experienced player – he trailed the play, saw the ball on the ground scooped it up and took it in for a touchdown. That’s the kind of thing you can’t teach; you certainly didn’t draw it up that way.
“But once again you’ve got some kids who are special, and you put them on the field and put them in situations, and the fact that they’re special always seems to rise to the occasion. Carnel’s a defending state wrestling champion in his weight class, and he was named player of the week last week for a reason. He’s a great football player and a better kid. He found a way to make it happen for us when it probably shouldn’t have.”
Southside had an opportunity to score on the opening drive of the half after defensive back Jordan Wells intercepted Faulkner, but the drive stalled on the Hokes Bluff 34-yard line. Neither team had much success offensively in the second half until Rich’s touchdown run midway through the fourth.
“We had some huge defensive stops,” Nelson said. “Credit to Coach (Jake) Nichols and those guys. It was an ugly win, but a great win.”
Rich said this year’s team feels different than in previous years, and there’s much more positivity in the locker room.
“Confidence is the biggest difference,” he said. “When we were in the locker room at halftime, it’s just different. Last year when we got in the locker room, we were just unconfident. When we came out of halftime, we knew we were going to win the ball game. We told ourselves we’re going to execute. We fixed the things we needed to fix defensively, and we fixed the things I needed to do on offense.
“I wasn’t making the right reads, and the defensive backs were doing a great job on their part in switching their coverages. We made our adjustments and we came out and fought. We faced adversity. On this field, it’s muddy and kind of hard to hold on to the ball. I’m so proud of my guys. I’m proud of my O-linemen. They worked their tails off this whole week. We all did, and I’m just glad to get the win.”
Robertson said he felt like his team played well on both sides of the ball despite the loss.
“Defensively, I think we did a lot of good things,” Robertson said. “Our whole secondary is new except (Tucker Griffin). I thought some of them made some plays. We’re learning back there. Coach (Taylor) Morgan took the secondary over. I think we’re going to win some games if we keep working.
“I did terrible on offense. We’ve just got to find some playmakers. (Southside) does a good job. They’ve got some good players. I thought we played pretty hard. We just got backed up. We could not make a first down. We could not get from behind our own shadow. They kept us pinned and played a little Hokes Bluff football there.”
The Eagles host Pleasant Valley on Friday (Sept. 4) for the Class 3A, Region 5 opener. Robertson said his team needs to find some more balance offensively.
“We’ve probably got to throw it a little bit more,” he said. “We weren’t able to run any stretch game. We finally did break one. I’m proud of our guys. I think we hung in there. I was worried to death with it being our first game. I thought we showed pretty good stamina. It’s not the end of the world.
“I thought we did a lot of good things. We’re going to have to play more consistently on offense and make more first down. Pleasant Valley’s pretty good. That’s a game we have to win at home.”
Griffin rushed for 115 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries, while Sprayberry added 54 yards on the ground. Faulkner completed three of his eight passes for 45 yards and one touchdown.
The Panthers outgained the Eagles, 339-221. Rich finished the game 14-for-25 for 156 yards and rushed for 52 yards and a score. Battles caught seven passes for 80 yards, while Davis rushed for 101 yards on 19 carries.
Southside hosts Pell City in its Class 6A, Region 7 opener on Friday (Sept. 4). The Panthers are 0-6 all-time against Pell City. Nelson said his team has to execute better when the other Panthers come to town.
“We have to combine our energy with better execution and playing mistake-free,” he said. “I’m sure Pell City will have good personnel and a lot of talent at the skill position. You can’t make mistakes against people like that. It’s really going to be about cleaning up mistakes and trying to be a better team in Week 3 than we were in Week 2.”