The Golden Eagles accepted their coach’s challenge, stepped up their game in the second half and rallied to beat Cleburne County 14-7 Friday night to gain a favorable position in the meat-grinder that is Class 4A, Region 5.
Jacksonville (6-2, 4-2) scored the go-ahead touchdown in the third quarter and held the Tigers to 70 yards of net offense in the second half to move into a second-place tie in the region with Lincoln. Cleburne County (5-3, 3-3), meanwhile, fell into a tie for fourth with Alexandria and Anniston.
It’ll be a mad dash for the region’s final three playoff spots as this week’s region finales find Jacksonville playing rival Alexandria, Cleburne County playing Lincoln and Anniston playing already-crowned region champion Munford.
“We’ve been talking about taking that next step,” Smith said. “Last year we came in and played really good early on and we just didn’t get the breaks later on in the year. We talk about how we have to make our own breaks when you get in these close games in this region.
“We just talked to them about taking that next step to give us a chance to get in the playoffs. When I used the ‘program-changing half’ we were faced with that opportunity … and when they come up you’ve got to take advantage of them, and they responded.”
Dominique Thomas put Jacksonville ahead with a 2-yard touchdown run with 7:33 left in the third quarter.
Quarterback Jackson Bell ran for the 2-point conversion.
The touchdown came on a fourth-and-goal after the Golden Eagles came out setting up for a 20-yard field goal attempt.
“We weren’t going to let our kicker kick,” Thomas said. “Me and Jackson told Mason (Tompkins) to get off the field. The coaches were telling him to come on, we told him to get off. We finally called a time out and convinced Coach that we got it.”
And they did.
“Kids are always going to want to go for it,” Smith said. “It was one of those momentum things, one of those statement things we needed to make. We believed in our offense and they came out and got us what we needed.”
Until that point, Jacksonville’s only score came when Elijah Cunningham scooped up a fumble at the 1 and fell into the end zone. The Golden Eagles had only 41 yards of net offense in the first half.
Thomas and Bell combined for 137 yards rushing in the second half.
“We’ve been a second half team all year long,” Smith said. “We talked about how we can’t get off to slow starts and then try to recover; that’s what happened to us last week against Lincoln.”
Cleburne County’s downfall was missed opportunities. The Tigers gave what coach Michael Shortt called a “great effort” in the absence of injured quarterback Brady Padgett and fullback Cole Corkren, but they missed two field goal attempts and failed on two fourth-down conversions in Jacksonville territory.
The attempt to go for it at the 4 in the third quarter came because of the two earlier missed field goals.
"You can’t get inside the red zone four times and not score,” Shortt said. “If you don’t get them in big games you’re not going to win. That’s what football is about – momentum.”
Cleburne County’s Trey Bolton, who wore Padgett’s jersey in the game, rushed for 81 yards, but was held to only 11 in the second half. Brandon Horn scored the Tigers’ only touchdown on a 26-yard run late in the first quarter. Horn finished with 77 yards rushing in the game.
Al Muskewitz is a sports writer for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3577.