Saks started the game with a 55-yard kickoff return by Justin Grier to the Clay County 38-yard line. Two running plays netted two yards, a third down pass fell incomplete and the Wildcats punted. It became the story of the game for Saks (6-3). The Wildcats ran for 31 yards in the first half and only 23 in the second. In the second quarter, Saks got to the Clay County 6 before a tipped pass became an interception. On their next possession, the Wildcats were stopped less than the length of the ball short of a first down inside the Clay County 10.
“A fast start, getting some points on the scoreboard in the first half, I think that would have really helped us out a lot,” Saks coach Clint Smith said.
Instead, the Wildcats trailed 14-0 at intermission.
“I thought the key was being able to contain their running game,” said Clay County coach Kris Herron. “At least we would know what they were going to do (in long yardage situations) even though they do it very well.”
The first quarter was scoreless but Clay County (9-1) was on the move as the quarter ended. Operating from the wishbone, halfbacks Lamar Jones and Deidric Rutledge and fullback Travis Smith took turns running inside the tackles. From the 20, senior quarterback Shawncey Simmons faked an inside handoff then flashed around left end and into the end zone. The first of Simmons’ three kicks made it 7-0 with 10:14 left in the second quarter.
Jones led the Panthers’ ground game with 99 yards on 14 carries. Simmons netted 68 yards on 12 attempts despite being sacked four times for losses totaling 20 yards. Smith had 13 carries for 59 yards and Rutledge 11 for 54 yards.
“When you can pound it in there like that — pound, pound, pound — and you don’t have to get a lot each time, eventually when you do decide to go outside, you think you’ve got a chance to get something,” Herron said of the change of pace Simmons brings to Clay County’s offensive options.
Simmons got another opportunity to showcase his speed quickly. On its second play after the ensuing kickoff, Saks fumbled and lineman Jaylan Ackles recovered for Clay County at the Saks 7. Simmons ran the keeper around left end on first down and Clay County led 14-0.
Saks responded with a 74-yard drive to the Clay County 6. Quarterback Chase Johnson opened the push with a 9-yard completion to Marquis Townsend. Receptions by Grier for 39 yards and 12 yards and his 11-yard run gave the Wildcats a first-and-goal at the Clay County 6. Johnson’s next pass attempt was tipped at the line of scrimmage and Clay County freshman linebacker Payton Reynolds made the interception.
The Panthers took the second half kickoff and drove 64 yards in six plays. Simmons’ 36-yard gain from midfield set the stage for Rutledge’s 14-yard touchdown run.
Johnson passed Saks deep into Clay County territory again in the fourth quarter. The Wildcats lost the ball on downs again when a fourth-and-12 pass from the 15 was incomplete.
“I thought we played well in spurts. We got the ball down the field and into the red zone, just couldn’t put any points on the board,” Smith said.
Johnson was 10-for-18 passing for 171 yards. Grier, who led the Wildcats’ rushing with 51 yards on 11 tries, had three pass receptions for 80 yards. Townsend’s two catches gained 29 yards. Ladarius Young had three grabs for 27 yards, Cordarius Cooper one for 31 yards and Tre Smith one for four yards.
“I thought we played well defensively, considering what we were going against,” Herron said. “(Saks is) going to make some noise in the playoffs.”
Clay County hosts Luverne in the first round of the playoffs next week. Saks travels to Sardis.