WALNUT GROVE – Jackson County cruised downfield on its opening drive Friday (Sept. 17) to score an early touchdown, but it was all downhill from there.
Walnut Grove won the field position through the rest of the first quarter to gain the lead, and it held on the rest of the way to defeat the Panthers 16-14. Jackson County head coach Rich McWhorter missed the game after being ejected against Franklin County last week. Assistant head coach, and former Panther quarterback Alex Crawford, took his spot Friday.
Jackson County (2-2, 0-1 Region 8-AAAAA) had the ingredients for another fourth-quarter comeback down 16-7 when Connor Bejon it Jaden Cofer on a 55-yard touchdown pass with 4:27 left in regulation. The score cut the lead to 16-14, and after a quick stop by the defense, the Panthers reclaimed possession of the ball at their own 39-yard line with 3:19 left in the game.
However, a personal foul on a block negated a great first-down run by Bejin and it took away Jackson County’s momentum. The drive ended when the Warriors stopped Bejin on a scramble at the 46-yard line on fourth down. The Warriors killed the remaining 76 seconds to win 16-14.
“We knew this game would be similar to Franklin County in terms of being a physical game,” Crawford said. “I felt like there were times where we really met that challenge, but if you don’t do it for four quarters, you’re not going to win the game.
“Ultimately, we fell short in some areas. I’m disappointed for our guys because they did work hard, they did a lot of stuff the right way. But it was a hard-fought game. We gave ourselves an opportunity, ball in hand there at the end and we just didn’t get it done.”
The desperate scenario Jackson County found itself in at the end of the game was a far cry from how it started the game. After opening with a three-and-out on defense, the Panthers cruised down the field with big plays on the ground and in the air. The 66-yard drive ended with a 12-yard misdirection run by Cofer which gave Jackson County a 7-0 lead with 7:01 left in the first quarter.
The game started to shift on the ensuing kickoff. Walnut Grove returned the short kick to its own 41-yard-line. The Panthers’ defense got another stop, but the Warriors pinned Jackson County to its own 5-yard line with a great punt. The Panthers failed to move the ball and Walnut Grove restarted at Jackson County’s 46-yard line after a punt.
The Warriors only needed a few plays to score on a 30-yard touchdown run. Jackson County blocked the point after attempt to keep the score at 7-6 with 32 seconds left in the first quarter.
The momentum shifted further into Walnut Grove’s favor when it recovered a surprise onside kick around midfield. The Warriors marched downfield and scored on a three-yard power run up the middle to take a 13-7 lead with 8:09 left in the second quarter.
“Those were hard to readjust to, but we do have an older team,” he said. “They’ve been through the ups and downs with everybody. We truly had to do some soul searching and refusing because this is one of those where you saw who needed to grow up, seniors included.
“We need a kick in the chin every now and again. That’s what those moments were”
Jackson County’s defense kept Walnut Grove’s offense out of the end zone the rest of the way, but the Panthers couldn’t find any success on offense. Tre Ransom had an uncharacteristically quiet night on offense, rushing 11 times for 21 yards. The Warriors negated his impact which greatly limited the Panthers’ offense.
“[Walnut Grove] made a couple of good adjustments on defense,” he said. “Whenever we ended up doing some different things up front, they noticed. They really upped their physicality, to be honest. We were the aggressor that first drive, and they really turned it on”
Though that nearly changed early in the fourth quarter. Jackson County finally started winning the field position battle in the third quarter, which led to it taking over at its own 46-yard line late in the quarter.
Trailing 13-7, the Panthers marched downfield until encountering a fourth-and-two scenario at Walnut Grove’s 23-yard line. Isaiah Maxey hit Ransom on a screen pass and the senior running back used his agility and power to break free for a touchdown. However, despite Ransom catching the ball in the backfield, the officials penalized the Panthers 10 yards for having an ineligible receiver downfield.
Jackson County attempted another fourth-down conversion and nearly scored another touchdown. But the pass to Anthony Finley in the end zone was overthrown. Walnut Grove took over at its own 31-yard field goal and marched all the way to the Panthers’ 27-yard line to attempt a 44-yard field goal. The attempt was true and the Warriors led 16-7 with 5:50 left in the game.
Despite having two possessions in the final minutes of the game, Jackson County couldn’t find the winning score and lost its Region 8-AAAAA opener 16-14.
The Panthers return to action next Friday at home against reigning and 19-time region champs Clarke Central.