By Tim Gayle
Two of the Alabama Independent School Association’s best defenses were matched up Thursday night in Edgewood Academy’s clash at Macon East Academy.
But defense was a luxury that didn’t show up often in the highest scoring game in AISA history.
“Two offenses put on a show tonight,” Edgewood coach Darryl Free said. “Our defense didn’t play their best game, they would admit that, but they did enough to come away with a win at the end.”
And when it was finally settled, by Robert Stewart’s right foot with an extra point in Edgewood’s 70-69 overtime victory, both coaches knew they had witnessed a special event.
“I tell people all the time, the year we won the state championship, I have to look at a picture to see what the score was,” Macon East coach Glynn Lott said. “This is one you’ll remember the score, but you always remember the losses easier than the ones you win. It was a battle on both sides. It was hard fought. To play as much as we did and to be as clean as it was? There was no pushing or shoving, just playing.”
There was 1,175 total yards in addition to the 139 points, nearly 40 first downs combined by the two teams that couldn’t settle their differences in the first overtime period as both tallied touchdowns with one-play drives. When Macon East started the second overtime period with a touchdown, there was finally a break in the scoring when Cade Bazzell led a defensive surge into the Macon East backfield to block Christian Moody’s 10th extra point attempt.
Three plays later, facing fourth down and a win-or-lose moment, Alex Johnson rolled right and found Robert Stewart alone at the 3-yard line.
“I just had to keep my mind on doing what I was supposed to do,” Johnson said, “letting the play progress and letting my receiver get open.”
Stewart jogged into the end zone untouched, then added the extra point to touch off a wild celebration among the Edgewood players and coaches.
“We really feel this is a statement win for our program,” Free said. “Macon East is a heck of a ballclub that is going to go a long way in AAA and for us to be able to come out and get the win tonight, I think it really makes a statement about our football program and where it’s at.”
By the end of the first quarter, it was 21-14. In a rare display of defense, Edgewood was held to three plays on its first possession, leading to Cephus Cleveland’s 15-yard pass to a backpeddling Parker Whittle in the end zone and a 7-0 Macon East lead. Four plays later, Johnson was blindsided by Coleby Jordan on a pass attempt and fumbled. Derrick Hooks rumbled 55 yards with the fumble return and a 14-0 lead.
Back came Edgewood with a 4-yard touchdown reception by Carson Peevy. Back came Macon East as Cleveland, now at tailback, took a handoff from Kirkland Pugh and went the final 4 yards. Edgewood responded with a 25-yard reception over the middle by tailback Undrez Crawford. There were more than three minutes remaining in the first quarter and five touchdowns had already been scored.
Jordan ran 65 yards for a touchdown, bullying his way down the field by shoving aside Edgewood defenders. Johnson responded with a heave down the same sideline on the opposite end of the field, avoiding the sack by throwing it up a Isaac Gordy, who was all alone behind the Knights’ defense to complete a 43-yard play and trim the deficit to 28-21 at the end of the first quarter.
The two teams continued their breakneck pace, although a shanked punt by Hooks – resulting in a punt that lost 8 yards – led to a quick Edgewood score on Johnson’s 9-yard run that tied the game. Edgewood surged ahead on a 91-yard touchdown pass from Johnson to Stewart before Macon East countered with Cleveland’s 66-yard pass to Bradley Ward. The Knights went back in front on Whittle’s 11-yard reception with 66 seconds left, only to see Edgewood tie it up at 42-42 with a 64-yard play on a pass to Kam Burleson that ended with Kaleb Varner’s 5-yard scoop and score after Burleson fumbled as he was tackled.
Macon East surged back in front by holding the Wildcats and forcing a punt, scoring on a 42-yard punt return by Ward, then grabbing a 56-42 lead on Cleveland’s 26-yard run after Jordan forced another Johnson fumble with a sack.
At that point, Lott made a calculated gamble to slow the game. As soon as the Knights got the ball back on downs at the Macon East 17, his team went to work letting the air out of the ball.
“Once we got up two scores in the second half, that was the plan,” Lott said. “We tried to slow it down in the second half. Once again, that’s not our style, so I’m not sure it doesn’t hurt you when you slow it down.”
It did. Macon East never found their rhythm the remainder of the game. Edgewood, meanwhile, got a 65-yard run by Crawford seconds into the fourth quarter and, following an 8-yard punt by Hooks, a 26-yard run by Crawford and suddenly the game was tied at 56-56.
“I thought we were wearing them a little down with tempo,” Free said. “I thought they were getting tired and we were able to capitalize a little on that with some of our running game.”
The Knights had three plays and a punt, kept the game tied with a Ward interception, then had three plays and another punt. Stewart’s 50-yard field goal attempt on the final play hit the right upright just below the crossbar, but the Wildcats clearly had the momentum after falling behind by 14 points twice.
“I try to make practice as hard as I can,” Free said. “And we do it for moments like this. We preach – and we try to get them to buy into – you fight until the last buzzer hits. We met in a couple of timeouts that I called to try and kill their momentum and we talked about that – don’t stop fighting, no matter what the score is.”
Crawford ran 10 yards on the first play of overtime, but Cleveland countered with a 10-yard run on the next play, leaving both teams tied at 63-63 entering the second overtime.
“Coach always talks about quicksand,” Johnson said. “He tells us, always, to stand up and fight through it. We have hard practices so were conditioned. I think our team is more conditioned that a lot of teams in AISA. We have really hard practices that we go through every week and I don’t think anyone else in AISA goes through our hard practices like us. We really weren’t tired so we kept pushing ourselves to be better and better every play.”
It wasn’t the conditioning, the pass routes or the defense that dictated Thursday’s outcome, it was special teams.
“Our defense has won a lot of games for us,” Lott said. “We play defense well all the time and tonight we didn’t have a good night. They didn’t, either. They’re giving up an average of 8.9 points per game and we’re averaging giving up 15 and they give up 69 and we give up 70.”
For the Knights, Cleveland rushed 22 times for 115 yards and four touchdowns while completing 10 of 15 yards for 140 yards and three touchdowns. Jordan added 169 yards and a touchdown on 18 carries.
For the Wildcats, Johnson had 66 yards and a touchdown on 13 carries, while completing 23 of 42 passes for 452 yards and six touchdowns while throwing two interceptions.
“He made a few mistakes tonight,” Free said, “but he dusted them off and he became the leader that we know he is and he led his team to victory.”
Crawford added 159 yards and three touchdowns on 14 carries.
Edgewood (6-0) is open next week before traveling to Wilcox on Oct. 11 and resuming play in AA with region games against Lakeside and Autauga the following two weeks. Macon East (3-1) travels to Lowndes next week before resuming play in AAA with region games against Monroe and Success Unlimited.
“We knew they were a good football team and we thought it would be a good football game,” Lott said. “We told (the players) we want to win every game we play but this is a non-region game that means absolutely nothing for our playoff spot. It’s a pride game. We lost by a point but I’m proud of our kids and how they played.”