Oftentimes, a signature game-winning drive unravels in the fourth quarter, when the victory is salient for the offense and a feeling of defeat is imminent for the defense.
Sometimes, however, a memorable march down the field, logic-defying and spectacular in its nature, unfolds in the first half, and its remnants eat at the team on the receiving end as it slowly watches the final seconds of the game—in this case, the season—tick away.
Such was the case in the middle of the second quarter when Whitewater (7-4), who had Eagle’s Lading (7-4) pinned within its own 15-yard line on a third-and-12, allowed a first-down conversion, and, several plays later, an unlikely touchdown. The third-and-longs turning into first-and-10s became a theme for the Whitewater defense in front of its home crowd, as a 7-3 deficit ballooned to a 45-3 final on Friday. The result captured what seemed inevitable throughout most of the game: a first-round exit in the Class AAAAA playoffs for the Wildcats and a meeting in the Sweet 16 against Warner Robins for the Golden Eagles.
“We couldn’t get them off the field defensively,” Whitewater head coach Bryan Holley said. “We had them hemmed up a couple of times, but that quarterback is pretty good, especially in space.”
The quarterback Holley speaks of, 6-foot-3 Cam Lewis, was impervious to Whitewater’s pressure on Friday night. Frankly, it didn’t matter if his offensive line stymied the Wildcats pass rush (most times, it did not). Lewis was going to twist and juke out of would-be sacks and heave it down field to open receivers no matter how many of the 10-plus yards he needed to gain on third down. In these situations, his head coach, Shawn Jones, was yelling from the sidelines to throw it away, but, “he converts,” Jones said. “What else can you say?” If no receivers were open, Lewis, a more-than-serviceable dual-threat, opted to dash down the sidelines and reach the first down marker himself.
In one second quarter drive, one that, a few plays in, had Eagle’s Landing backed up deep in its own territory on third-and-12, Lewis converted three third-and-longs, including one that was called back due to a cheap block on Whitewater’s Ian Jones. The drive ended, fittingly, in Lewis sneaking out from behind the line of scrimmage to catch a touchdown pass from Bryce Dewberry.
To be fair, the Wildcats defense isn’t all to blame for the lopsided result. Two pick-sixes from Golden Eagles defenders Dewberry—the same one who threw a touchdown pass to his quarterback—and Ishmael Gilliam cushioned the blowout.
Aside from a 31-yard field goal in the second quarter, Whitewater’s offense couldn’t find running room nor a receiver not wearing white and gold. It seemed a foregone conclusion, even at halftime when Whitewater trailed 21-3, that the 24 minutes remaining in the game would be the final 24 minutes of the Wildcats’ season. With only five first downs all game—compared to 21 Eagle’s Landing first downs—the Golden Eagles managed to dominate in every facet of the game.
“I told them that they had to stop the run,” Jones said, fresh off an unforeseen ice bath in the first winter-weather game of the year. “They are a running football team.”
Emmanuel Stores and Justin Robertson added a touchdown reception and run, respectively, in the second half to cap off the school’s first state playoff win, convincingly outgaining Whitewater 430-100 in yards.
“On offense, we couldn’t generate anything, so it was just one of those nights,” Holley said.
The lone highlight for Whitewater came with 1:46 remaining in the game, when Elijah Roland tackled Robertson on the 1-yard line to thwart a fourth-and-goal attempt to pour on one more score before the final buzzer.
While Whitewater was clearly unpleased with the outcome, Holley was able to see the bigger picture for a team that, for some players, won’t play another game in a Wildcats uniform.
“Football’s just a means for us to teach them life lessons,” Holley said. “If we can do that and win a few ball games in the process, we’ve done our job.”