By Scott Nickerson
Trailing Class 7A Smiths Station 17-3 at halftime, it looked like Stanhope Elmore was going to lose their homecoming game for the second consecutive year. After the game, Coach Brian Bradford said he had one word for his players at halftime: Believe.
The Mustangs came out in the 2nd half and looked like a different team, although it was without leading receiver Conner Bradford, who didn’t return after making a 38-yard catch during the 2nd quarter. Returner Jeremy Thompson got things started, returning the 2nd half kickoff to the 44-yard line. The Stanhope Elmore offensive line asserted their will, methodically moving the ball down the field rushing the ball. Quarterback Andrew Rines had a 15-yard rush that later set up a 1-yard touchdown to cut the deficit to 17-10.
The Panthers converted two third down plays with long passes, and looked set to add to their lead, when cornerback DJ McGhee made the first of three big defensive plays, intercepting a Smiths Station pass in the end zone to keep the Panthers out of the end zone. Just a few plays later, senior running back Tre Duncan exploded down the right side in front of the home crowd for a 70-yard touchdown run to even the score at 17 with under three minutes left in the 3rd quarter.
The remainder of the game featured an exciting back and forth between both teams. Senior defensive tackle TJ Jackson combined with William Whitlow for an 11-yard sack on the next play after Smiths Station got the ball back. Jackson then followed it up with a two-yard tackle for loss, but the Panthers were able to convert a 3rd and 23 with a 27 yard completion. However, on the very next play, McGhee made his second big defensive play, recovering a fumble and returning it to the Smiths Station 29-yard line.
With the Mustangs’ offense threatening, Rines threw an interception on a deep sideline pass on the the first play of the 4th quarter. Smiths Station was able to pick up a couple first downs, until McGhee broke up a pass on a 3rd and long, ending the drive.
Stanhope Elmore was unable to put anything together on the next drive, giving it back to the Panthers. Smiths Station converted a 3rd and 13 during the drive, but couldn’t get any closer than the 24-yard line and had to settle for a 41 yard field goal attempt with under three minutes left. The attempt was wide right, leaving the score knotted at 17 and giving the Mustangs the ball on what would prove to be the final possession.
Facing a 3rd and 5 after two plays, the Panthers jumped offsides, giving the Mustangs a fresh set of downs. A personal foul penalty on the next play moved the ball up another 15 yards. However, the Mustangs’ next two plays resulted in a loss of two yards, and the Mustangs faced a 3rd and 12 still on their side of the 50 yard-line. Needing a big play or facing a likely overtime battle, Coach Bradford made an excellent play call, running a draw on the weak side with running back Tre Duncan, who carried it for 34 yards to put Stanhope Elmore in field goal range.
Speaking of the play call that resulted in Duncan’s big run, after the game, Coach Bradford said, “They overloaded the trip side on an earlier play, so we ran the draw on the other side, hoping they would do it again, and it worked out for us and put us in scoring range.”
That wasn’t Bradford’s last tough call. The Mustangs moved the ball to the Panther’s 13-yard line, and Bradford decided to not run another play, and instead let the clock run down to four seconds and call a timeout, bringing kicker Dylan Presciti on the field for a 30-yard attempt.
“I wasn’t nervous at all,” Presciti said after the game. However, when asked if he’d ever had a kick as important as that, he shook his head, “Never.”
The game deciding kick sailed high and through the uprights as time expired, giving the Mustangs a 20-17 victory on Homecoming Night.
Rines’ 3rd quarter touchdown was his 5th rushing touchdown of the season, and 8th touchdown overall. Duncan’s score was his 4th rushing touchdown of the season. In the 2nd half alone, Duncan had 10 carries for 134 yards and the touchdown.
The Mustangs win improves them to 5-1 on the season, having won four straight games since the loss at Prattville. Stanhope Elmore will travel next week for the biggest game of the season, a region showdown at rival Wetumpka. A win will likely lock up a top two seed for the Mustangs in Class 6A Region 3, and earn them a home playoff game for the first time in nine seasons. The Indians are only 3-3 on the season, but have faced a tough schedule, losing at Dothan in the second game of the season, then by one point on the road at Opelika. Friday night the Indians suffered a 31-13 loss at home to Prattville. The Indians have won Class 6A Region 3 the last two years, and are led by big bodied quarterback Ty Rawls. Wetumpka will be looking for revenge after dropping a heartbreaker to Stanhope Elmore last year as the Mustangs had a defensive score with under a minute left to break 28-28 tie and win by seven.