HOKES BLUFF – Seemingly in the blink of an eye, the Spring Garden Panthers were down three scores in their first-ever football meeting with Class 3A Hokes Bluff on Friday.
But once the Class 2A, No. 6 Panthers finally settled in and started playing the ball they’re accustomed to, they made the Eagles sweat things out on their homecoming.
Senior quarterback Ryley Kirk completed 25-of-42 pass attempts for 291 yards and two touchdowns. He also ran for two scores. Junior receiver Cooper Austin caught seven passes for 146 yards and two more touchdowns, but they weren’t enough for Spring Garden in a 42-28 setback.
“We just didn’t execute like we should have early,” Spring Garden coach Jason Howard said. “I don’t know if we were a little intimidated coming in here. I’m not sure what it was, but we can’t do that against a good team.”
On the game’s first play from scrimmage after the opening kickoff, senior tailback Weston Kirk lost the football on a carry near the 15-yard line, which was scooped up by senior linebacker Hunter Burke who returned it for an easy score. Just 24 seconds into the game, the Eagles had a 7-0 lead.
On their next drive, the Panthers (4-1) were faced with a fourth-and-1 at their own 32-yard line. Howard rolled the dice and decided to go for the first down, but senior fullback Luke Welsh was stopped by the Eagle defense for no gain.
Eight plays later, Hokes Bluff quarterback Connor Faulkner scored on a 1-yard run to push the Eagles out to a 14-0 advantage. Faulkner then took the air for the Eagles’ next score just 11 seconds into the second quarter. He connected with Burke on a 44-yard pass play, giving Hokes Bluff a 21-0 edge.
But give the Panthers credit for not lying down. They finally put things together on their first drive of the second quarter when Ryley Kirk connected with Austin on a 15-yard score at the 8:29 mark. Cam Welsh’s extra point was no good, keeping the score at 21-6.
After the Panther defense forced the Eagles (3-2) to punt, Kirk directed another scoring drive. This time he took it in from 12 yards out, then hit Austin on a 2-point conversion pass to bring Spring Garden within a touchdown at 21-14.
Another quick stop by the Panther ‘D’ resulted in just enough time for the offense to find the end zone again on a 34-yard Ryley Kirk-to-Austin score with just 2.6 seconds left in the first half. Ryley Kirk’s pass for the 2-point conversion missed, but all of sudden, the Panthers found themselves down by just a point at 21-20.
“That was critical,” Howard said of the score before halftime. “I think Cooper’s one of the best receivers in the state. I don’t care what class you put him in. He’s one of the better defensive backs too. He’s got great hands, great feet, great hips. He did well. I think Ryley put some balls in some good spots for him to go catch it.”
Hokes Bluff coach Mike Robertson also praised Austin for his playmaking ability.
“Number 23 is pretty good,” Robertson said. “He made two or three great catches. I thought we covered him better in the second half, but he still caught a few. As good as they are, they’re going to catch some. I knew that coming in. I told our guys they’re going to catch some passes.”
Which is all the more reason Hokes Bluff’s fast start was huge.
“We just kind of fluttered a little bit (after going up 21-0),” Robertson said. “We had the ball three times and didn’t get but one first down. We put our defense back on the field too many times there in the second quarter. All we needed was one drive. I got on the offense as much at halftime as I did the defense, but it was better in the second half. We took it and drove it and ate up some clock.”
But before Robertson’s second-half game plan took effect, an Austin interception of Faulkner on the Eagles’ opening possession of the third quarter put their defense back out on the field again. This time, however, Hokes Bluff came up with a stop and forced the Panthers to punt.
An 8-play, 85-yard drive resulted in junior tailback Tucker Griffin’s 11-yard touchdown run. Jadan Burns’s extra point put the Eagles up 28-20 with 4:27 to go in the third.
Griffin led Hokes Bluff’s ground game with 93 yards on 19 carries. He added a 1-yard score with 9:32 remaining in the game to give the Eagles a two-score advantage at 35-20.
But the Panthers still didn’t back down.
Following Griffin’s second score, Ryley Kirk connected with Austin again down the sideline on a 48-yard pass to give the Panthers a first down at the Eagle 17. Four plays later, Ryley Kirk scored on a 1-yard run. He also hit Andrew Floyd on a 2-point conversion pass to make it 35-28 with 7:51 left in the game.
The Panther defense came up with a big stop inside its own 36. Burns punted down to the Spring Garden 1 with 3:49 remaining, giving the Panthers a glimmer of hope to tie the game.
Hokes Bluff’s defense forced Spring Garden into a fourth-and-long situation. A Ryley Kirk desperation pass to a diving Floyd just missed, which turned the ball back over to the Eagles at the Panther 12.
“They started knowing we had to throw,” Howard said. “They started blitzing on us a little bit. Our protection broke down. We were short-handed a little bit on the line, and our protection broke down when we didn’t pick those blitzes up. Even when they didn’t get to us, they forced us to rush our throws, forced Ryley to throw off his back foot a good bit. Those are things we’ve got to pick up and give ourselves time.”
Following a Hokes Bluff penalty, sophomore tailback Noah Sprayberry put the game away on a 16-yard touchdown run with just under two minutes to go.
“It was a good test tonight,” Robertson said. “To hold them to 28 points tonight, I ain’t gonna lie. That’s pretty good. We knew they were going to score. They didn’t run the ball much on us. We made them one-dimensional. Eventually they kind of wore down in the fourth quarter.”
Faulkner connected on 5-of-7 pass attempts for 105 yards with a touchdown for the Eagles, who play at Weaver on Friday. Welsh finished with 78 yards on nine carries for Spring Garden, which travels to Gaston on Friday.