For a while it seemed as if neither Alexander nor Langston Hughes wanted to win their Class AAAAAA-Region 5 contest, Friday night.
Alexander held the lead most of the night, but never put the game away despite a bushel of turnovers by the Panthers. On the flip side, Langston Hughes’ defense kept the game close and its offense moved up and down the field, but couldn’t find a way to take control.
But in the end, Alexander’s defense stepped up while the offense put together a game-winning drive late in the fourth quarter, and the Cougars (7-0, 5-0), ranked No. 8, pulled out a 23-19 win.
“Resiliency and confidence,” said Alexander head coach Matthew Combs when asked how his team executed a 12-play, 64-yard drive that ate up 3:35, and culminated with a 4-yard touchdown run by Justin Hall to provide the margin of victory, with just :41 seconds left in regulation. Prior to that drive, with a little over four minutes left, Hughes’ Fernando Sdelamora kicked his fourth field goal of the night – a 26 yarder – to give the Panthers a 19-16 lead.
“When you believe you’re going to score and you expect to score, good things happen,” Combs said. “When they scored and took the lead, I huddled the team up and said OK, let’s go score. They all looked at me and said, yeah, let’s go score.”
The drive was directed brilliantly by quarterback Mason Wood, mixing quick passes to four different receivers with strong runs by Daetrich Harrington, out of the Cougars’ spread pistol set. On third-and-goal from the Hughes 4-yard line, Wood handed the ball to Hall on a zone-read running play and the junior darted into the end zone. It was Alexander’s best drive of the night, as the Panther defense kept the game close in the face of five offensive turnovers, including four interceptions, one of which was returned 26 yards for a touchdown by Cougar safety Adam Smith.
“Our defense knows they played well,” Hughes head coach Willie Cannon said. “But they told me, coach, we shouldn’t have let them score. We should have held them out. But we still have a lot to play for and it’s my job to get them ready for next week.”
Alexander held a 10-9 lead at half time after turning two Panther interceptions into points. The pick offs led to scoring drives of just 16 and 21 yards. Still, Alexander’s offense, which came into the game averaging more than 35 points per contest, couldn’t quite get going. In fact, heading into intermission, Alexander had earned just one first down to Hughes' 15.
In the third quarter, Smith’s pick-six provided a little breathing room at 16-9, after the point after kick failed. But Hughes answered with its best possession of the game. On fourth-and-inches from the Alexander 32, Panther quarterback Isaiah Green called his own number on a draw play, and darted, dipped and spun his way into the end zone to tie the game at 16, after Sdelamora’s successful point after kick. The scoring march went 72 yards and stretched into the fourth quarter.
On Alexander’s ensuing possession the Cougars turned the ball over on downs at the Hughes 40-yard line when Wood was sacked. The Panthers took over and moved to the Alexander 10-yard line, but three consecutive incomplete passes forced them to settle for a field goal, setting the stage for the Cougars’ offensive heroics.
“I’ve said all year [our] defense doesn’t get the credit it deserves,” Combs said. “Everybody says they’re too small or too slow. To play good defense you have to have great heart and the desire to swarm to the football and deliver big hits. Our guys did that tonight.”
Alexander 10 0 6 7 23
Langston Hughes 0 9 0 10 19
A – Justin Hall 15 pass from Mason Wood (Kade Austill kick)
A – Austill 20 fg
LH – Fernando Sdelamora 42 fg
LH – Sdelamora 36 fg
LH – Sdelamora 28 fg
A – Adam Smith 26 interception return (kick failed)
LH – Isaiah Green 32 run (Sdelamora kick)
LH – Sdelamore 26 fg
A – Hall 4 run (Austill kick)