“I just can’t believe we lost to them,” he said following the Bulldogs’ 21-14 loss to Oneonta. “They’re a good team, but we beat them three times. We just couldn’t pull it out tonight.”
Back in Week 8, Anniston rallied from 17 points down in the third. And last season Anniston won twice, on the road in the regular season and in the second round.
But the back-to-back Region 6 champions let their first trip to the state championship since 1994 to slip away. Anniston ended the season with a 9-5 mark.
Oneonta running back Tyler Smith broke a 14-14 tie with 9:39 remaining to provide the Redskins with what wound up being the game-winning score.
“We knew what was coming,” said Roberts, a safety. “They just executed and we couldn’t stop them. We just didn’t get there fast enough.”
Smith finished with a team-best 102 yard on 19 carries to lead Oneonta to first-state title game appearance since 2004. The Redskins (10-2) will face top-ranked Jackson, which defeated UMS-Wright 26-14 in the other semifinals matchup. The Class 4A will take place next Friday at 11 a.m. at the University of Alabama Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa.
Smith’s run was preceded by a gutsy call gone wrong by Anniston coach Eddie Bullock on the Bulldogs’ previous possession.
Faced with a fourth-and-1 from the Bulldogs’ 20-yard line and more than 10 minutes remaining, Bullock decided to go for it instead of punt. The decision backfired when Oneonta’s defensive line broke through and stuffed all-state running back Troymaine Pope for no gain.
Three plays later, the Bulldogs were down a touchdown with the season on the line.
“Our defense had been playing well, and I wanted to give them a little spark,” Bullock said. “I figured ‘We’ve got the best running back in the state, we can get a yard’.
“But they had a linebacker blitz, and we missed a blocking assignment in the gap, and we came up two inches short.”
Aided by a third quarter during which Anniston only ran seven plays, Oneonta limited Pope to 38 yards on 13 carries in the second half. With more than 2,300 yards and 30 touchdowns on the round, Pope finished the night with 188 yards on 30 carries and one score.
He put Anniston on the board first with a 96-yard run with 10:40 to play in the first quarter. He had a 72-yard touchdown negated on a holding penalty on the first play of the Bulldogs’ next possession.
Oneonta tied it at 7 with a 1-yard run from Alvin Scott with 1:34 left in the first. Anniston went back up again on a 19-yard pass from junior quarterback Spencer Howard to wide receiver Quinn Jackson on a fourth-and-6 play with 3:58 left in the second.
A 1-yard run from Oneonta quarterback Schyler Walker evened the game at 14 38.4 seconds before the half.
Walker completed 15 of 23 passes for 198 yards and an interception, and Smith rushed for 102 yards and a score on 19 carries.
Anniston’s defense, which pitched shutouts against Cherokee County and Fayette County in the first and third rounds of the playoffs, thrilled the home crowd with heroics all night. It forced three turnovers, two inside its own 5-yard line, and another with 4:29 remaining that gave the Bulldogs one last shot to tie the game back up.
But it was all for nothing.
Anniston moved the chains twice on its final possession which began at its own 32 but stalled out near the Oneonta 35 when Roberts was dumped for a loss on a fourth-and-10 play.
“We had special personnel in a special package and we mixed some run in with the passes,” Bullock said, “but we just didn’t have enough time to get set up like we wanted to.”
Bullock had no problem shouldering the blame for the loss as he spoke to his team during a final post-game address near midfield.
“If anyone asks you guys why you all lost, tell them it’s my fault,” Bullock said. “That’s my job, and believe you me, I can take it.”
Bullock has gone 19-8 in two seasons at the Bulldogs’ helm after taking over for former coach Alex Wilson with a trip to the quarterfinals and now the semis under his belt. This season, he guided a bunch that lost 19 seniors from a team that won 10 ball games a year ago.
“I’m really proud of this team,” Roberts said. “We knew a lot of people didn’t expect much out of us. We heard that, took it and ran with it as motivation.”
Nick Birdsong covers prep sports for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3575. Follow him on Twitter @birds_word.