CEDAR BLUFF – The Cedar Bluff Tigers knew the keys to stopping the Hubbertville Lions, and those were limiting the performances of junior backs Gage Key and Gage Alexander.
That proved easier said than done.
Key carried the ball 34 times for 232 yards and four touchdowns. He also threw for another score. Alexander added 183 yards on 16 totes with a touchdown. It took every ounce of their efforts to lift the Lions to a 44-37 victory in the opening round of the Class 1A state playoffs on Friday.
“We told our kids from the beginning this was going to be tight, down to the end. We hung in there and gave ourselves a chance. At the end of the day that’s all you can ask for,” Cedar Bluff coach Jonathan McWhorter said. “We knew going in those two guys made them go. They have a good scheme. They’re going to put it in their hands and they’re going to play hard.”
And play hard Hubbertville (8-2) did, but the Tigers (6-5) made things interesting late.
Trailing by a touchdown with 1:42 remaining, Cedar Bluff’s defense stopped Key for a loss on a fourth-and-6 at the Tiger 23-yard line. Cedar Bluff’s offense had to march three quarters of the field for the game-tying score, but the Lion defense equally proved up to the challenge.
On first down, Tiger junior quarterback Jacob Burleson was sacked by Alexander for a 10-yard loss, backing Cedar Bluff back up to its own 15. A pair of Burleson passes fell incomplete, putting the Tigers into a fourth-and-20 situation with 46.9 seconds left.
Following a Tiger timeout, Burleson dropped back to pass again, but was intercepted by the Lions’ Austin Berryhill to seal the game.
“You’re down to the last 1:30 of the game and you can’t let them make a big play. You’ve got to come up with a stop and that’s what we did,” Hubbertville coach Lamar Harris said. “We had a big play when we sacked the quarterback on first down.”
“Our kids believed because we’ve always taught as long as we’ve got a play left, we’ve got a chance. We were just a play or two short tonight,” McWhorter said. “That was not indicative of how we played. We fought back from some adversity and gave ourselves a chance with the ball to go down and score and potentially win the game. We just weren’t able to do it. That’s part of competition. Sometimes things go your way. We’ve been on the winning end of game-ending drives. Tonight just wasn’t our night.”
As McWhorter said, the Tigers overcame a 22-15 halftime deficit to tie the game early in the third quarter. Burleson picked off a Key pass and returned it down to the Lion 8. Two plays later, senior Anbre Leek scored on a 6-yard run. Nick Clifton’s extra point knotted the score at 22.
Hubbertville countered on its ensuing drive with Key’s 52-yard touchdown run. He also tossed a 2-point conversion pass to Alexander to put the Lions back out in front 30-22 with 5:47 to go in the third quarter.
The Tigers battled back to tie the game again on a 32-yard Burleson-to-Preston Burt touchdown pass. Burleson hit Leek on the ensuing 2-point conversion pass to even the score at 30-30.
But the score didn’t remain that way for long, as Alexander dashed 56 yards for a touchdown for the Lions. Key’s pass on the 2-point try missed, keeping the score at 36-30.
The Lions extended their lead to 44-30 following a Greyson Key interception of Burleson near the end of the third quarter. Hubbertville took the turnover and drove 60 yards in nine plays, capped off by another Gage Key touchdown. This one went for 12 yards. He also accounted for the ensuing 2-point conversion run, and for the first time in the game, Hubbertville had a two-score advantage with 7:31 remaining in the contest.
Despite being down two scores, the Tigers didn’t lie down. Burleson guided Cedar Bluff 61 yards in eight plays, capped off by his 11-yard touchdown toss to Leek. Clifton’s extra point brought the Tigers within a score again at 44-37 with 4:44 remaining.
“When we went up two scores in the fourth quarter with about seven minutes or so left, I just told the guys don’t let them hit a big play. Make them earn everything they get, but we did let them hit a big play and they got in quick,” Harris said.
Hubbertville appeared as if it would put the game away after driving down to the Cedar Bluff 23, but the Tiger defense made a fourth-down stop when it needed it to set up the offense’s final drive of the night.
Burleson connected on 15-of-29 pass attempts for 221 yards and four touchdowns. He accounted for the game’s first touchdown on a 35-yard scoring strike to Clifton with 8:19 in the first quarter and a 14-yard touchdown connection with Burt at the 6:51 mark of the second.
Burt finished with three catches for 61 yards and two touchdowns. Clifton caught a pair of passes for 61 yards and a score. He also added 49 yards on nine carries. Leek finished with five catches for 52 yards and a touchdown. He also caught a pair of 2-point conversions and ran for a score.
“We knew we were going to be in a dogfight tonight, but our kids were ready,” McWhorter said. “I felt like we were prepared on both sides of the ball. We were just a hair away from popping off a couple of big kickoff returns. We had a chance to win, and really that’s all you can ask for. I’m just proud of our kids and our coaches. We just came up a little short.”
“Cedar Bluff’s kids played extremely hard. They ought to be proud of what they done,” Harris said. “They lost a lot of kids from last year. I’ve been watching their scores all year long and they’ve really improved over the year. Tonight it was just two teams who really shouldn’t lose.”
Hubbertville advances to host Winterboro in the second round next Friday night.