The senior running back came into the Panthers’ Week 9 matchup against Marbury ranked third in rushing among ball-carriers in The Star’s coverage area with 988 yards and 12 touchdowns on 148 carries.
But junior Dalton Carroll had the biggest run in Wellborn’s 21-7 defeat of the Bulldogs on “The Hill”. Coupled with a goal line stand late, it captured the No. 4 spot in Class 3A, Region 3 and secured the Panthers a second straight playoff berth.
Carroll took a handoff on a third-and-8 from the Panthers’ 20 and broke it 80 yards to turn a seven-point lead into two-touchdown gap with 1:05 to play, following a successful extra point by Rhoden.
“Grass,” Carroll said. “That’s all I saw on that play.
“I trusted my offensive line. Once I got through the hole, I turned on the jets, and I got a block downfield from my boy Dejuan (Traylor).”
Carroll finished with 94 yards on nine carries.
His score sent the Wellborn faithful into a frenzy as it all but sealed the postseason berth. Coaches and players exchanged hugs and handshakes in celebration as the victory was a formality.
Rhoden came up big as usual. He went over the 1,000-yard mark for the season on an 18-yard run for a first down on his third carry from scrimmage.
He finished with a game-high 136 yards and two touchdowns on 28 carries, and his 57-yard run with just 32.8 seconds to play before the half gave Wellborn a 14-7 lead.
He said it was all about mindset. The Panthers and Bulldogs each came into the game with region losses to Leeds, Handley and Clay County, so it was win and you’re in the playoffs.
“Our mindset coming into this game was that we couldn’t take ‘No’ for an answer,” said the 5-foot-11, 175-pound Rhoden. “We were at home. We had a great crowd out here tonight. With the playoffs on the line, we just couldn’t take ‘No’ for an answer.”
Rhoden scored on a 3-yard run and added a 2-point conversion with 2:50 to play in the first to put Wellborn ahead 8-7.
Marbury’s spread offense looked as if it might have the Panthers spellbound all night as the Bulldogs (5-4, 3-4) moved the ball with ease to begin the game. They opened up the game with an 10-play, 74-yard drive that ended with Lorenza Cooper diving over the top for a 1-yard score that put his team ahead 7-0 with 8:06 remaining in the first.
“We just saw two wishbone teams in back-to-back weeks,” Wellborn coach Jeff Smith, referring to the Panthers’ losses to Clay County and Handley in Weeks 7 and 8. “We had to adjust.”
It seemed as if the Bulldogs had found their early game magic again late in the fourth quarter. They got a first-and-goal from the Wellborn 4, down 14-7 with about five minutes to play in the fourth quarter after a 28-yard run by quarterback Keston Chatman.
Cooper lined up in the popular wildcat formation on first down was stuffed for a 1-yard loss. Carroll met him in the hole and limited him to just a yard on second down, and he was upended shy of the goal line on third.
On fourth down, down Cooper, the Bulldogs’ leading rusher with 81 yards on 18 carries, went left and reached the end zone, but the play was called back. Marbury was whistled for having five players in the backfield, one of nine penalties that cost the Bulldogs 73 yards and a 91-yard run.
When the down was replayed, Chatman overthrew Richard Tyus from seven yards out as Wellborn completed the goal-line stand.
“Wellborn football has always been on defense,” said Smith, an alumnus. “For them to bow up and stop them on four straight downs and get a goal line stand makes us coaches proud.”
Wellborn will travel to Gordo for its first-round playoff matchup after it plays host to Woodland in its regular-season finale next week.
Smith said his team is “happy to be there,” speaking of its spot in what is likely the toughest 3A region in the state. The Panthers will finish behind Leeds, a state semifinalist last year and 2008 state champion, Handley, a state semifinalist in Class 4A the past two years before dropping in classification, and Clay County, who reached the state finals in Class 2A last season.
“We’re not your average No. 4 team,” Smith said. “Our kids set five goals before this season. No. 1 was to have a winning season. No. 2 was make it to the playoffs. No. 3 was to win a playoff game. No. 4 was to make it to the state championship, and No. 5 was to win the state championship.
We did two of those things tonight.”
Nick Birdsong covers prep sports for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3575. Follow him on Twitter @birds_word.