OAKWOOD — On a night the Jackson County Panthers had originally planned to have off, they went out and won a football game.
Playing on short notice after East Jackson was forced to cancel with West Hall due to COVID-19 exposure, Jackson County — which played in place of the Eagles —defeated West Hall 26-18 Friday in Oakwood.
Jackson County coach Rich McWhorter didn’t mind taking the field a week early as a substitute opponent.
“We looked at it as nothing but a positive thing, ‘Hey we're getting to play football on Friday night,’” said McWhorter, whose team needed an extra game after East Jackson also canceled its Sept. 11 game with Jackson County. “And with these days and times, like I told the guys, I said, ‘Guys in my heart, I believe we’re going to play 10 football games this year.’ I really do. I said, 'But you never know' … When we had the opportunity to make this happen, I was so glad we made it happen.”
Jackson County, which agreed to the game back on Monday, rallied from an 11-point second-quarter deficit with 19 unanswered points in defeating West Hall, getting rushing touchdowns from Tra Ransom, Bo Reeves and Connor Bejin. Reeves also caught a first-quarter touchdown pass.
Ransom ran for 148 yards on 19 carries with freshman Jaden Coffer getting carries as well.
"They complemented each other really well, so I think that's going to be a thing for us all year long," McWhorter said.
McWhorter praised the play of the Panthers' offensive front in particular.
"You look at them when they get off the bus, our offensive line is a pretty good- looking group and they do a great job in the weight room," McWhorter said. "We've really been harping on them since the beginning of last year, 'We've got to start playing like we look.' And I think tonight they did play like they look. They came off the football and they got after people."
The Panthers, who played without top defensive player Andrew King, trailed 18-7 midway through the second quarter and 18-13 at halftime. The first half included six turnovers between the two squads and two safeties.
McWhorter said he had to refocus his team at halftime.
"At halftime, I talked to them, I said, 'Listen some of you guys' body language here is awful,'" McWhorter said. "'And it has nothing to do with the scoreboard. It's because you think you should be in playing.' I said, 'You prove all that and get your playing time during the week in the weight room and on the practice field' ... That was the biggest issue at halftime we had to address was we need to grow up a little bit."
The Panthers, who shut out West Hall in the second half, took the lead for good when Reeves scored on a 14-yard run early in the third quarter, putting Jackson County ahead 20-18.
Bejin then scored on a one-yard quarterback keeper in the final minute of the third quarter for the final margin of victory.
West Hall mounted a drive inside the Panther 20 in the waning moments after three big completions from quarterback Clayton Jenkins, but Travis Hughson produced a sack on fourth down to effectively end the game.
"Our secondary really got stressed tonight," McWhorter said of his team's defensive effort. "Because their passing attack, their quarterback is a really, really good quarterback. He makes a lot of great throws. Our secondary was really pushed to the limit by their receiving corps."
Playing in front of limited crowd at West Hall due to COVID-19 protocol, Panthers got on the board first with a 23-yard touchdown pass from Bejin to Reeves at the 7:20 mark in the first quarter.
But West Hall’s defense answered with a pair of safeties — one in the first quarter and the other in the second quarter — to cut the lead to 7-4.
Immediately following the second safety, the Spartans’ Josiah Henrique broke loose for a 46-yard second-quarter touchdown run to put West Hall ahead 11-7, followed by a 32-yard touchdown strike from Jenkins to Andrew Malin later in the quarter, increasing the lead to 18-7.
After the teams traded turnovers, the Panthers answered with a seven-play march, calling on Ransom to carry the ball six times. He capped the drive with a five-yard score to cut the lead to 18-13 with 2:27 left in the second quarter.
Jackson County then produced a turnover on the first series of the second half and Reeves scored three plays later on his 14-yard run at the 10:25 mark, putting the Panthers ahead 20-18.
The Panthers recovered another fumble on West Hall’s next possession and put together a 15-play drive, capped by Bejin’s one-yard score, increasing the Panthers’ lead to 26-18 with 0:29 left in the third quarter.
McWhorter said he and his coaches would study the game film to consider their options offensively, including improving the passing game.
"We may take our offensive package and maybe shrink it a little bit, and really zero in on a couple of things we think we do well," McWhorter said. "We might have come into this thing with maybe too big of a package offensively."
Jackson County is off next week and will host Stephens County Sept. 18.