SAND ROCK – Jonathan McWhorter remembers during his high school football playing days at Cedar Bluff several Sand Rock games decided by one score or less. He’s coached in a few of those closely-contested battles also, including last season’s win in overtime.
So it didn’t come as a surprise to him the latest chapter in their rivalry on Friday night came down to the very end once again.
After building a three-touchdown lead at halftime, the Tigers had to hold off a furious second-half Sand Rock rally for a 28-27 victory to end the regular season on a five-game winning streak. The victory was also the Tigers’ third straight over the Wildcats.
“It’s always going to be a tough, hard-fought, physical game, and tonight was no different,” McWhorter said. “Our kids just made one more play to win the game. They weren’t going to be denied. I’m just real proud of them.”
After Sand Rock had cut the Tiger lead to a touchdown at 28-21 with nine minutes remaining in the game, McWhorter gambled on a fourth-and-4 at Cedar Bluff’s own 32-yard line. The Tigers appeared initially as if they were trying to draw Sand Rock into a neutral zone penalty, but quarterback Jacob Burleson took the snap and threw a pass that fell incomplete, turning the ball over to the Wildcats with 6:44 to go.
However, Cedar Bluff’s defense rose to the occasion and stopped Sand Rock two yards short of a first down inside the red zone at the Tiger 13 at the 4:24 mark of the fourth quarter.
Cedar Bluff tried to milk the clock on their ensuing possession and punt, but Anbre Leek’s kick was blocked by the Wildcats’ Jacob Cornejo and recovered by Ethan Clanton, who ran the ball back to the Tiger 22 with eight seconds remaining.
That was just enough time for Sand Rock to score. Wildcat quarterback Ace Ashley scrambled out of pressure and found Clanton, who went the distance for the touchdown with no time remaining, bringing Sand Rock within a point.
The Wildcats were lining up for the tying extra point when Cedar Bluff was flagged for having too many men on the field. That changed first-year Wildcat head coach Alan Heath’s mind to go for two and the win.
Cornejo took an Ashley handoff up the middle, but was stuffed just short of the end zone by the Tiger defense.
“I could’ve called a better play there (on the 2-point try), and that’s on me 100 percent,” Heath said. “That’s part of it. You come in and work your tail off. You put yourself in some situations where you can win. Sometimes you do, sometimes you don’t. Tonight we didn’t.
“The kids worked real hard. They played real hard, and I was real proud of them, especially in the second half. We kind of issued them a challenge at halftime. I don’t feel like we played well in the first half. I think my demeanor let them know that, but we came out in the second half and responded well to that challenge.”
McWhorter said his team “bailed me out.”
“We went tight punt (on the blocked punt),” he said. “We practice that three times a week. Obviously that’s not what we wanted. We punt that ball right there and they have probably have two plays to go 70 yards. We ended up getting pressure on their quarterback anyway (on the final touchdown). All we had to do was get one guy on the ground, but that kid (Clanton) made a great play. It was close on the goal line right there. Again, our kids just made one play when they had to (on the 2-point try).
“Our kids bailed me out. All the credit goes to our kids. We had some plays here and there we felt like we should have made in the second half, but we didn’t. When you face some adversity, when things are going a little tough, we always talk to our guys about what type of adversity can you handle? Can you keep moving forward? Can you still focus? Can you still give great effort? Are you going to feel sorry for yourself? Our kids didn’t. We had a three-touchdown lead at halftime and we let that slip away. I’ll take responsibility there at the end of the game. That’s my fault, but our kids bailed us out. We had to have one play to win and they made it.”
As McWhorter said, Cedar Bluff built a 21-point halftime lead before having to hang on in the second half. Burleson scored on a 1-yard run with 9:56 remaining in the first quarter. Nick Clifton’s extra point made it 7-0 Tigers.
Sand Rock tied the score at 7 on Ashley’s 1-yard score and Bryan East’s extra point with 2:30 to go in the opening quarter.
Burleson accounted for another 1-yard touchdown run and threw a pair of touchdown passes to Bucky Leek from 32 and 10 yards to stretch the Tiger lead to 28-7.
But the game proved far from over.
Clanton cut Cedar Bluff’s advantage in half at 28-14 on a 13-yard touchdown run with 8:32 to go in the third quarter. Cornejo scored on a 13-yard run himself on Sand Rock’s next drive to close the Wildcat deficit to a touchdown at 28-21, helping set things up for a dramatic finish.
Ashley connected on 8-of-14 pass attempts for 108 yards and a touchdown. He also ran in for a score. Cornejo carried the ball 14 times for 76 yards and a score. Clanton collected 68 yards on 12 totes with a touchdown and caught a pair of passes for 29 yards and a score.
Burleson completed 6-of-12 pass attempts for 102 yards and two touchdowns. He also ran for a pair of scores and had an interception on defense. Bucky Leek caught three passes for 57 yards and two touchdowns. Anbre Leek had three catches for 45 yards. Clifton carried the ball 18 times for 50 yards.
Cedar Bluff hosts Hubbertville (7-2) to open the Class 1A state playoffs next Friday. Sand Rock’s season ends at 3-7.
“I couldn’t ask for a better group of kids to be the first group of seniors to have as a head football coach,” Heath said. “I know our record is not great at 3-7. That’s not something I wanted or they wanted or anyone wants, but I will tell you the relationships I’ve built with these kids and the hard work they’ve put in and what I’ve got to know and learn about them, I wouldn’t trade it for anything else in the world.”
Cedar Bluff head coach Jonathan McWhorter
Sand Rock head coach Alan Heath