Saraland quarterback K.J. Lacey scores on a 2-yard run in the third quarter against Lipscomb Academy Friday night. (Todd Stacey/Call News)
Saraland’s Ryan Williams scampers into the end zone on a 10-yard run in overtime in the Spartans’ 31-30 win over Lipscomb Academy Friday night. (Todd Stacey/Call News)
Saraland’s C.D. Gill makes a leaping catch against Lipscomb Academy Friday night. Gill had seven catches for 76 yards in the Spartans’ 31-30 win. (Todd Stacey/Call News)
By JIMMY WIGFIELD
SARALAND — It was so hot this week that one Saraland assistant coach saw the glue in the soles of his shoes melt at practice.
The Spartans’ souls were similarly laid bare once ESPN’s cameras came on Friday night for the nationally televised game against Lipscomb Academy. One wondered if half the team was going to get hauled to the infirmary.
“Everybody was hurting,” said All-American receiver Ryan Williams, who was repeatedly denied the deep ball but dug deep when it counted most.
Fellow All-American quarterback K.J. Lacey lost his balance against the Mustangs’ run-swallowing defensive front, heaved a pick-six, was felled by a cramp in his foot and had to gulp down mustard packets to relieve it.
“And I hate mustard,” Lacey said, “but I had to take it.”
Other problems piled up for Saraland on the overheated artificial turf.
Linebacker Jamison Curtis dislocated his shoulder when he blocked a punt in the fourth quarter that ended up being recovered by Lipscomb for a first down.
Even coach Jeff Kelly was limping after tearing his meniscus in Monday’s practice.
“Getting old,” he said. “Did it running through a drill.”
But his Spartans know the drill on how to win.
Lacey kept his composure, scoring on a 2-yard run on one series in the third quarter, then flinging a 50-yard touchdown pass to Williams on the next to give Saraland its first lead at 18-14.
In the fourth quarter, Curtis, his shoulder throbbing, helped stop Mustangs quarterback Deuce Knight on a fourth-and-2 sneak, saw the ball squirt into the air, scooped it up and sprinted 78 yards for a touchdown to seemingly put the win in the vault at 24-14.
While Lipscomb rallied to force the game into overtime, it only prolonged the drama as Williams scored on a 10-yard run and Tucker Singleton kicked what proved to be the winning point in the Spartans’ 31-30 triumph over the two-time defending Tennessee state champions, who were ranked No. 25 nationally.
“This was about our respect,” Williams said. “We wanted to get our respect on national TV.”
The Mustangs got a 10-yard TD pass from Knight to T.J. Briggs in overtime but the left-footed Kofi Boggs sliced the extra-point kick narrowly left of the uprights, sending the 4,000 fans in the standing-room-only crowd into a frenzy.
Amid Saraland’s celebration, a sobbing Boggs was consoled by Spartans players.
“We had to let everybody in the state know that we’re not just an offensive team,” Curtis said. “I think we proved we’re one of the top teams in the country. We were the underdog. We started off slow but the defense played hard. It’s not how you start but how you finish. Greatness starts in the fourth quarter.”
Saraland’s defense was on the field for all but 16 seconds of the fourth quarter as Lipscomb rallied.
Lacey was 21-of-32 passing for 213 yards but the Mustangs’ tough defensive front held the Spartans to 33 yards rushing.
Saraland had the ball only two plays in the fourth quarter and got outgained 179-0 in total yardage in the final 12 minutes.
“We were slugging it out with an amazing opponent with talented players,” Kelly said. “It’s a great first win.”
It came the hard way as an afternoon with temperatures reaching 102 degrees at the stadium gave way to a battle that left both teams spent. In the fourth quarter, Knight, who had been harassed all night, finally had time to maneuver against the Spartans’ exhausted defense.
“I was fighting for my life,” Curtis said afterward, his shoulder still popping in and out. “I’m glad he missed that extra point. We should have never gone into overtime.”
It went into overtime because Boggs recovered his onside kick with 1:45 to play, leading to Knight’s 16-yard TD run and Boggs’ tying kick with 10 seconds left in regulation.
“The onside kick was my fault,” Kelly said. “I was aggravated with myself for not covering those situations with my guys.”
Saraland started sluggishly and trailed 7-6 at halftime, managing Singleton’s field goals of 34 and 25 yards.
“(Lipscomb) plays really good in the box and their defensive front made running tough,” Kelly said.
The Spartans’ defense was likewise in control but allowed a 69-yard TD dump and run from Knight to Micah Burton against a fierce pass rush.
It looked even worse for Saraland early in the third quarter when Lacey tried to force a pass to Williams, who was out of bounds, and was intercepted by four-star cornerback Kaleb Beasley, who returned it 25 yards for a 14-6 lead.
“It was an ugly throw,” Lacey said. “I should have thrown it away.”
But after the interception, he kept his composure and, following a pooch kick that gave the Spartans the ball at the Mustangs’ 42, Lacey completed a 21-yard throw to C.D. Gill on a crucial third-and-13 and scored on a 2-yard run moments later.
On the next series, Williams finally slung Beasley off him after collecting an out rip from Lacey and raced 50 yards to give Saraland its first lead at 18-14 late in the third quarter.
“They kept everything in front of them and did a good job,” said Williams, who had six catches for 92 yards. “But (Beasley) had been biting on that hitch all game. That’s what great players do and he had the confidence to do it. I told K.J. he was going to shoot down there on that hitch and to throw it to me. I was already spinning out when he threw it. Then it was time to break some ankles. They had us on our heels and it hurt them. We just stepped up.”
The lead grew to 24-14 late in the fourth quarter after Lipscomb drove from its 13 to the Spartans’ 13, where the 6-5 Knight tried a fourth-and-2 sneak but couldn’t get low enough, stretching the ball high over the pile and getting it swatted away. Curtis grabbed it and went 78 yards for the touchdown.
“We knew from watching film when they lined up heavy that it would be a sneak,” Curtis said. “I contained the edge and saw the football pop out and scooped it up and ran.”
But the Mustangs drove 57 yards in 16 plays for Boggs’ 29-yard field goal with 1:45 to go, then converted the onside kick to tie the game.
Knight was 12-of-35 passing for 182 yards and ran for 67 yards on 12 carries but wasn’t effective until the fourth quarter.
“I was proud of our defense and how they competed,” Kelly said. “They kept making play after play when we needed it. I saw it in the spring against our offense. They played their tails off tonight. How many times last year did we win a defensive game? That’s what I’m most encouraged about.”
Lacey was encouraged by a victory over a nationally ranked opponent when Saraland didn’t have its best stuff.
“It was a hard game,” Lacey said. “We proved we should be ranked in the top 25. We started off slow but showed flashes of what we can do. We’re going to learn from this.”