The Tigers (7-4) return home to L.E. Bell Field Friday to face Central of Florence (9-2) in the second round.
Central finished its regular season as Region 8 champion. The Wildcats feature a powerful running game out of the wing-T behind a large, physical offensive line led by senior tackle Justin Bates (6-foot-2, 265 pounds) and junior tackle Chandler Brewer (6-5, 285).
Senior Gerrard Beasley has rushed for over 1,600 yards, averaging more than 10 yards per carry, and scored 24 touchdowns this season. Beasley gained 179 yards and scored four times – runs of 5, 64 and 22 yards and a 19-yard pass reception – in Central’s 58-45 win over St. Clair County last Friday.
Beasley wasn’t the only Central runner who had a big game against the Saints.
Evan McFall gained 154 yards and Denton Chandler 130 as the Wildcats netted a school-record 529 yards on the ground. Jonathan Hacker scored twice while McFall, Kyle Duncan and quarterback Patric Langston each scored once. Touchdowns came often but extra points were a struggle. The Wildcats missed three kicks and failed on three 2-point conversion tries last Friday.
St. Clair County turnovers, at the Saints’ 22 and 12, gave Central a short field twice in the first half and the Wildcats took advantage both times. By halftime, Central led 33-14 then the Wildcats had to score three times in the fourth quarter to secure the win.
“We have broken down the wing-T this week to our kids. We work a play a day – the buck sweep, the waggles, the traps and all of that,” Cleburne County coach Michael Shortt said Wednesday. “We‘ve spent a lot of time this week defensively trying to get ready for their big people and their offense that they run.”
Shortt said derailing Central’s ball-control offense will be critical for the Tigers.
“It’s going to be important for us to get off the field in third down situations. We’ve got to do a great job on first-and-10. We need to put them in second-and-long. We want to put them in a passing situation somehow and cause turnovers. They don’t put themselves in a position to have a lot of turnovers by throwing it around a lot so we’ve got to do a good job of getting the ball back,” Shortt said. “On the flip side, we need to control the line of scrimmage on the offensive side to keep the ball away from them. We need to score but at the same time we need to score and use some clock. That’s imperative for us.”
At Gurley last Friday, Cleburne County linebacker Geoffrey Teague got the first interception of the game for the good guys when he stepped in front of a screen pass on the initial possession and returned the pick to the Madison County 20-yard line. After a first down, the drive stalled inside the 10.
Anderson Jacks, who had pulled a muscle on the initial kickoff, booted a 20-yard field goal for 3-0 lead with 8:02 left in the first quarter but couldn’t kick again.
Madison County’s second possession ended on another interception. This time, Alex Sandmann tipped the throw and it popped into the air, giving Jeremiah McLeroy time to make the pick.
Three plays later, Cleburne County returned the favor with an interception and Madison County started at its 20. Mixing runs and passes from a shotgun, the home team drove to the Cleburne County 1 then moved quarterback Tyler Gurley under center on fourth down.
The snap was bobbled and double dead-ball personal fouls gave the ball to Cleburne County at the visitors’ 15 instead of the 1.
Runs by Trey Bolton, Brandon Horn and Christian Henson produced three first downs. At the Madison County 44, a major distance penalty moved the ball to home team’s 29. Bolton ran for nine yards and six yards and another first down at the Madison County 14. From there, Horn made a great run, fighting his way to the 1 but a holding penalty backed the Tigers up to 20 and the drive stalled at the 12.
“That would have been a field goal time but there wasn’t a field goal because of an injury,” said Shortt.
Madison County got out of the hole in a hurry, picking up 80 yards on a screen pass, the only big play Madison County was able to break all night. From the Cleburne County 8, Madison County finally scored on third down from a yard out and took a 7-3 lead.
“Our defense did a great job of not giving up big plays because they had made a ton of them during the year with No. 7 (Jacob Salisbury) and No. 10 (Tyler Gurley),” Shortt said.
Cleburne County drove again before losing the ball on downs at the Madison County 17. The score remained 7-3 at halftime.
The teams exchanged punts to start the second half. Cleburne County’s second possession began at the Tiger 44. Bolton got four yards on first down and Horn moved the Tigers into Madison County territory with a 3-yard gain on the next snap.
On third down, Cleburne County went to an unbalanced line, shifting tight end Cameron Kerr to the spot usually occupied by left tackle Tyler Berry and moving Berry just outside of right tackle Matthew Shortt.
On the snap, Berry, Shortt, right guard Dalton Boyd and center Austin Brooks surged, opening a sizeable hole. Damion Benefield pulled from left guard and led Bolton through the gap, taking out a linebacker. Bolton pulled away from a shoe-string tackle attempt just past Benefield and outran everyone else on the field for a 49-yard touchdown blast.
“We knew when the ball was snapped we had an opportunity and, of course, Trey did a good job of running and breaking the line of scrimmage and we scored. It was a good job of blocking right there, too,” Shortt said.
A pass for two points failed but Cleburne County led 9-7. The Tigers never trailed again.
The scored remained 9-7 when the third quarter ended then Cleburne County punted on the first play of the fourth quarter. Madison County moved to midfield before freshman linebacker Mario Smith got the third interception for the visiting Tigers, carefully protecting the ball as he carried it back to the Madison County 39.
Nine running plays later, six by Bolton and three by Horn, Cleburne County reached the Madison County 5. From there, Bolton scored through the right side with 6:23 remaining. He then drove into the middle of the line and spun for the 2-point conversion. The longest play of the march was a 10-yard gain by Bolton but the Tigers never had a negative play.
Madison County answered with a nine-play, 68-yard drive. A 21-yard pass into the end zone after Gurley was flushed out of the pocket produced the points and the extra point left Cleburne County ahead 17-14 with 3:55 to play.
Henson fielded the deep kickoff at the Cleburne County 10 and returned it to his 24. Three plays failed to gain first-down yardage and Teague’s 44-yard punt died at the Madison County 37.
With time running down and the game on the line, Madison County got two first downs – the second coming at the Cleburne County 41. Then a pass fell incomplete on first down. Smith held Gurley to a 2-yard gain on second down and a third-down throw into triple coverage was incomplete.
Facing fourth-and-9, a quarterback keeper was halted at the Cleburne County 35, four yards short of a first down.
Henson went to his knee three times and Cleburne County had its first playoff win since 2010.
Bolton ran 38 times for 215 yards. Horn had 11 carries for 51 yards and Henson ran six times for 20 yards.
Henson was 3-for-8 passing for 24 yards. Horn had two receptions for 16 yards and Jeremiah Blake one for eight yards.
Sandman was the leading tackler for Cleburne County with 12 stops. McLeroy and Grant Corkren each made 10 tackles. Outside linebacker Matthew Morrow had nine tackles. Smith and Griffin Turner had eight stops each.
Teague recorded seven tackles and Drake Williamson had six. Shortt and Henson made four tackles apiece.
Ticket procedures at playoff games for November 14
• Everyone planning to attend Friday’s football playoff games in Heflin and Ranburne should be aware that the Alabama High School Athletic Association (AHSAA) sets the ticket prices and that each host school must follow all the rules and procedures established by the AHSAA.
• Tickets for Friday’s games will be $8. Everyone, including regular-season season ticket holders, must by a ticket. AHSAA passes for coaches, administrators and retired coaches and administrators are the only passes that can be honored.
• There will be no reserved seats and placing blankets or stadium seats in the seating areas prior to the game will not be permitted. There will be no passes to leave the game and return. Anyone who leaves will have to purchase another ticket to re-enter.
• At Ranburne, Harlen Robinson Field will open at 5 p.m. The gates at L.E. Bell Field in Heflin will open at 5:30 p.m.