CENTRE – Jacksonville football coach Clint Smith said he loves a good defensive struggle. That’s certainly what his seventh-ranked Golden Eagles got on Friday night in the first half at Cherokee County.
Both teams went scoreless in the first half, but the Golden Eagles finally got the big break they needed in the third quarter, and it opened the flood gates.
Senior linebacker Jaylon Prater blocked a Daniel Mejia punt deep in Warrior territory. The ball squirted through the end zone for a safety to give Jacksonville a 2-0 lead. The play sparked the Golden Eagles to a 30-8 victory, which clinched the runner-up spot in Class 4A, Region 4.
Jacksonville (6-3, 5-1) will host a first-round playoff game against Jackson on Nov. 6. Cherokee County (7-3, 4-2) dropped to the third spot in the region with the loss and will travel to Mobile Christian.
The Golden Eagles missed a couple of chances in the first half to take the lead. Senior linebacker Omarion Adams intercepted Warrior sophomore quarterback Cade Hopper deep in Cherokee County territory with just over two minutes to go in the first quarter. The Warrior defense held, forcing a 28-yard field goal attempt from sophomore kicker Mason Terrell. Terrell’s kick missed the mark, keeping things scoreless.
The Warriors then drove deep into Golden Eagle territory, but Jacksonville’s defense stuffed Warrior junior back Damien Ramsey on a fourth-and-2 at Jacksonville’s 25-yard line with 9:39 remaining in the first half. Cherokee County’s defense then halted another Golden Eagle drive on a fourth-and-3 at the Warrior 12. Jacksonville forced a punt on the Warriors’ next drive to head into the locker room scoreless.
Then came the big break of the game.
The Warriors received the ball to open the third quarter, but again couldn’t get things going offensively. Mejia dropped back to punt, which Adams got his hands on to force a safety.
“It’s definitely what changed the game,” Cherokee County head coach Jacob Kelley said. “It was a simple mistake up front. They weren’t going on punt block. We just had one of our guys up front not block his guy. His guy ran free and Daniel could do nothing. It definitely hurt our momentum in the second half.”
“I felt like when we went in at halftime, I felt like we were really amped up, maybe a little too juiced up the first half,” Smith said. “We were trying to do a few things and just play above what we needed to. I think we settled down at halftime.
“It was almost like you were waiting to see who got that first break. That definitely helped set the tone.”
On the ensuing free kick, Golden Eagle junior running back Taj Morris scored on a 7-yard run to help put Jacksonville in front 9-0. Hopper was intercepted again by Adams, which led to Morris’s 41-yard scoring run up the middle with 4:19 to go in the third for a 16-0 Golden Eagle lead.
Jacksonville put the dagger in the Warriors’ chances of a comeback early in the fourth quarter. The Golden Eagles forced another Warrior punt, which Morris fielded at the 24-yard line. He flipped the ball on a reverse run to Adams, who scampered 76 yards for another Jacksonville touchdown and a 23-0 advantage.
Morris, who ran for 133 yards on 26 carries, scored his third touchdown of the night on a 6-yard run with 5:15 to go in the fourth.
Against Jacksonville reserves, the Warriors got their lone score on a 77-yard touchdown run by senior running back Caleb Malone with a minute remaining. Whit Johnson ran in for the 2-point conversion for the final.
Jacksonville freshman quarterback Jim Ogle completed 10-of-17 pass attempts for 68 yards.
The Golden Eagle defense held Hopper to just 17 yards passing on five completions with two interceptions. Ramsey led the Warriors with 100 yards on 30 carries.
“Cade didn’t have his best night, but hat’s off to them for forcing that type of game from us,” Kelley said. “It got away from us in the second half.
“We knew from what we did last year (at Jacksonville), we were trying to get him (Ramsey) and the power run game involved. In last year’s game, we had about three or four guys we could roll in there, with (injured quarterback) Slade (Alexander) being one. They just did a great job of gang tackling and getting through our line of scrimmage. We weren’t able to get it done.”
Both teams concluded their regular seasons and will have next week off to prepare for the playoffs.
“All four teams in our region have their work cut out for them in the first round of the playoffs,” Smith said. “We’re tickled to be at Golden Eagle Stadium. It’s just great to be able to be at home.”
“It’s big for us to be back in the playoffs. That’s where we wanted to be,” Kelley said. “Being classified with South Alabama presented its challenges. It kind of made this game that much more important. We’ll get ready for Mobile Christian and see what they are, see what they do, get a game plan, and get the guys ready to play again. Hopefully we can get healthy in the off-week and be ready to go.”