JEFFERSON – While lightning from the sky delayed the Jefferson versus Rabun County bout for 90 minutes, electrifying plays on the field ensured the highly-anticipated matchup lived up to the hype.
Jefferson got the better of Rabun County once again, this time winning 22-15 after an onslaught of points in the first half and a series of defensive stands in the second half. The Dragons have now won 19-straight games against the Wildcats dating back to 1972.
Sammy Brown led the Dragons with 174 rushing yards in his Jefferson debut. Starks added 74 yards and six other Dragons combined for 119 rushing yards.
“For an opener, it was awfully exciting,” said head coach Gene Cathcart. “I thought our kids handled the delay really well. We had injuries, we’re banged up and guys really stepped up.
“Tonight we had to bludgeon this one out. It wasn’t always an aesthetical piece of beauty, but a win is a win, especially against such a gifted, well-coached team.”
Gunner Stockton and the Rabun County (0-1, 0-0 Region 8-AA) offense delivered the first blow of the game when they marched 82 yards on their first drive. The Georgia commit moved the ball with his legs and his arm. Ultimately he scored with neither, leaving his feet to dive over a pile of linemen for a one-yard touchdown with 1:40 left in the first quarter.
Jefferson (1-0, 0-0 Region 8-AAAA) didn’t let the Wildcats enjoy the lead for very long. Brown struck the Rabun County defense with a 79-yard bolt down the Dragon sideline. The crowd erupted as the 2024 prospect tied the ball game 7-7 with 53 seconds left in the first quarter.
Unfortunately, the sky erupted as well with multiple bolts of lightning nearby which delayed the game for around 90 minutes. The long stoppage placed doubts on the continuation of the game, and fears that a much smaller crowd would fill Memorial Stadium when play did resume.
Both concerns were squashed just after 9 pm when the Jefferson and Rabun County squads returned to the field. The fanbases of both teams returned as well and the delay did little to quell their excitement for the game.
Cathcart, who achieved his 150th career victory Friday, was proud of both crowds for returning to the game and creating the big-game atmosphere.
When the storm passed the Memorial Stadium area, another storm brewed on the Jefferson sideline. A pair of three-and-outs by the Dragon defense gave the offense outstanding field position early in the third quarter. Max Aldridge took over at quarterback to give Malaki Starks a break and the unit didn’t miss a beat.
Aldridge led a 47-yard drive capped off by Kadin Bailey’s four-yard romp into the end zone. Aldridge fumbled the ensuing extra-point try, but he picked up the ball and scrambled until he found a lane to reach the end zone. The scores gave Jefferson a 15-7 lead with 2:22 left in the first half.
Rabun County didn’t even have a chance to respond as it fumbled the kickoff away to the Dragons. A few plays later, Starks (back at quarterback) scrambled, jumped over a defender, and drove across the goal line for another Jefferson touchdown. The Dragons took a 22-7 lead into halftime.
Jefferson had a chance to put the game away midway through the third quarter. Aldridge led a 53-yard-drive to the Wildcats’ eight-yard-line, but a fumble recovered by Rabun County ended the scoring opportunity and changed the complexion of the game.
Jefferson fumbled again on its next possession, this time giving the Wildcats possession at the Dragons’ 36-yard-line. Stockton only needed a few plays to find an open receiver in the end zone for a 12-yard score. The Dragons caught a break when the extra point attempt went wide left, freezing the score at 22-13 with 37 seconds left in the third quarter.
“As great as they played defensively, we had an opportunity down in the red zone and we had that big turnover,” Cathcart said. “At that point, I think we tightened up. Credit to them, they made a play in the red zone. All of a sudden, everybody’s pucker factor is back up in a hurry. It made for a tighter night than I hoped.”
Jefferson still had a two-score lead and the clock was on its side. The Dragons used over five minutes on its ensuing possession but had to punt away.
“We probably could have taken the handcuffs off late,” he said. “With a nine-point lead, I hate to say it, but I got old man conservative. We did handcuff ourselves a little bit.”
A great punt by Dawson Crawley backed Rabun County’s offense up to the 10-yard-line, but Stockton wasn’t done making plays. First, he picked up a first down on a designed quarterback run. Next, he hit Jaden Gibson on a long pass to move the ball to the Dragon’s 19-yard-line.
That’s when Jefferson’s defense stepped up once again to force a turnover on downs. The offense took over with 4:03 left on the clock and held on to the ball the rest of the time to secure the monumental victory.
Jefferson travels to Central Gwinnett next week to play its first of two games against Class AAAAAAA foes.
BENCHMARK GAME ON DEFENSE
The win was huge for the rebuilt Jefferson defense which was tested by Rabun County’s star-studded offense. The Dragons held the Wildcats to 224 total yards and Stockton to just 152 passing yards.
“Number one, we didn’t give up many home runs,” Cathcart said. “They hit some singles and some doubles. Gunner showed his mobility which is obviously a big strength of his.
They’re like the old Baltimore Orioles with Earl Weaver, they’re waiting on the three-run home run; huge plays. We made them earn that over and over. Then they had to convert some third downs and we were able to get some pressure on them. I was really proud of the way we played on defense.”
The game became even more of a test in the second quarter when senior linebacker Jordan Perry left the game with a leg injury. Numerous players stepped up in Perry’s absence including Brown, the newcomer. The sophomore only received credit for one tackle, but his biggest impact was a quarterback hurry on third down during Rabun County’s last possession.
“It wasn’t just me,” Brown said. “It was Kadin, Tre and Max Aldridge that came out there and stepped up. It was really good that we could come together as a team and we could stop one of the best offenses in the state.
“That was incredible. It was really good to come out here and face a team like that with a ton of all-state players and a five-star that’s committed to Georgia. It’s good to know we can come out here to compete and beat them.”