With the ball on the 9-yard line, Smith gave kicker Dakota Gravitt a chance to give the Panthers the lead despite having missed an extra point earlier in the game.
Smith said that momentum swing was the biggest in what brought the No. 8 Panthers a 44-31 victory over No. 6 Fultondale Friday night.
“He didn’t have a good day kicking yesterday in practice,” Smith explained. “I brought some former players in to talk, and we got done around 6:15 last night. At 7:30, when it was dark, he was out on the practice field by himself kicking.
“It just came in my head, and I said, ‘You know what, that boy practiced and practiced and practiced,’” he added. “‘Just give him a shot at it.’ He went in there and came through for us.”
With the 16-14 lead and the ball to start the second half, Wellborn (4-0) took full advantage of offensive mistakes committed by Fultondale (2-2). Despite successfully running the ball for the fourth straight week, Smith said the turning point in the game was with Gravitt’s field goal.
The coach added the Panthers were fired up at halftime in the locker room, and it showed in the second half. After rushing for 174 yards as a team in the first half, Wellborn went 71 yards on six plays in 2:57, scoring on a 20-yard pass from Judd Smith to wide-open Evan Entrekin.
Fultondale’s offense, led by Ardarius Stewart, failed to gain positive yards on its ensuing drive after racking up 162 yards on the ground in the first two quarters.
Wellborn scored back-to-back touchdowns, making the score 37-14 before Fultondale found its offense again.
Stewart rushed 10 times for 80 yards and two touchdowns in the fourth quarter alone, but it was one of his two fumbles that killed the Wildcats’ momentum when they were down 37-24.
“They kicked an onside kick, and we didn’t get it,” Smith recalled after the game. “I tell you what, I was livid. Then, all of a sudden, that play came through.”
As Stewart was hit while scrambling on first-and-25 on his own 35-yard line, the ball came ajar. Landon Machristie caught it in mid-stride, returning it 35 yards for the score. The turnover turned touchdown gave the Panthers a 44-24 lead.
“I think there were some plays here and there that if they went our way it might have went different,” Fultondale coach Keith Register said.
The top-10 matchup lived up to the hype in the first half as both teams scored on their first two drives. However, the difference in the score was Gravitt’s missed extra point on the Panther’s second touchdown.
Stewart’s first fumble came just outside the red zone on the 21-yard line with a 14-13 lead. Smith said the plan for the game was to create long drives for Fultondale in hopes of a blunder.
“Going into the game, we had five games on them,” Smith explained. “One time in those five games did they go 12 plays on a drive, so we thought if we could make them keep snapping the football they’d be more apt to make a mistake.”
The first fumble by Stewart was what created the 65-yard drive for the field goal that changed the game.
Running back Kevin Mixon had a great performance in Wellborn’s wing-T Friday night, racking up 168 yards and three scores on 13 rushes. After the game, he said all of the credit should go to the offensive line.
Chantz Goodman finished the contest with 109 yards on 24 carries for Wellborn. Smith rushed five times for 40 yards. He also completed 2 of 3 passes for 33 yards and a score.
Stewart finished the night with 156 rushing yards, three touchdowns and two fumbles on 19 carries and 8 of 13 passing for 57 yards. Khyree Robinson led the Wildcats in receiving with six catches for 57 yards.
Saying it was one of the biggest wins recently for the program, Smith said the Panthers showed a lot of heart and character.
“We have worked these boys so hard from last football season to now,” he said. “We have talked about Fultondale since we got put in this region. For us to go out there and win this game, and win like we did, my hat’s off to those boys. Those boys went out there and played four quarters of football, Wellborn Panthers style, and I could not be more proud to be their coach.”
Sports Writer Brandon Miller: 256-235-3575. On Twitter @bmiller_star.