Photo by Stew Milne/Call News
LINEVILLE — When the game between the state’s two greatest high school football coaches was over, the rainspray that spritzed the field throughout the night had started again, perhaps christening an extraordinary moment in which defense had been pulled out of the archives and shown to still exist in this era of the 70-point greasing.
Why, at any time, you expected to see people going home to watch the rest of “The Twilight Zone” on their black-and-white TVs before the station went off the air for the night.
Rod Serling was always in the zone when introducing the classic show. “You’re traveling through another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind,” he’d say.
What was seen Friday night was also a classic of another dimension, the kind of game that should have been captured on grainy black-and-white game film that took three days to develop and got put in a silver can — the kind of game given to us by coaches who grew up when there were only three channels and rabbit ears and are still showing they are of an excellent vintage.
As UMS-Wright’s Terry Curtis and Central Clay County’s Danny Horn embraced in the middle of the soggy field, scoreboards on each end proclaimed in red lights “UMS 7, Vols 0,” and people on both sides were rubbing their eyes to make sure it was true. The score could have been kept on an abacus.
The ground sank beneath their feet under the weight of their 706 victories and 16 state championships.
“Good luck and I’ll be pulling for you,” the classy Horn told Curtis after the winningest high school football coach of all time in Alabama had just dispatched the previously undefeated and heavily favored second-winningest coach of all time.
Before the first-round playoff game, Horn said something else which hinted he was unsettled.
“He said, ‘Out of all the four seeds we could have played, we’d rather played anybody but y’all,’” Curtis recounted.
For if there is a master of close games, if there is someone with a heritage of beating somebody he isn’t supposed to beat, it’s Curtis — a fact many had plugged their ears to in the week leading up to the game.
And if there is anybody more old school than Horn, it’s Curtis. Horn had his headset clamped around his neck when they met at midfield but he probably could have taken it off after the first couple of possessions. Curtis, who has no use for such gadgetry, still had his play sheet tucked in his back pocket and allowed a subtle smile of satisfaction to cross his face.
“It’s always fun to beat an undefeated team,” he said later. “I don’t think anybody picked us to win.”
Scrawny beats brawny
If anyone still doubts the greatness of this man — particularly in taut games against superior talent on the road and with almost no offense — they probably think Taylor Swift knows something about football. She did have a song titled “22,” presumably about how many times she is shown on TV every minute during a Kansas City Chiefs game.
With 13 of the 16 teams left in the Class 5A playoff field averaging at least 30 points per game, a 7-0 game was decidedly off key. But teams that lose to the Bulldogs, certainly in the rare off years, are often left to mutter incantations of disbelief and they were loud from the outset, after UMS-Wright appeared in the door with straw seemingly sticking out from under its scrawny shirt.
One of the Bulldogs’ defensive linemen is a 5-foot-10, 143-pounder named Mac McGinley, who is 62 pounds lighter than Central Clay running back Damari Whetstone, who is 45 pounds lighter than the average of the offensive linemen in front of him. And when Whetstone kicked down the barn door on runs of 32 and 34 yards on his second and third carries, Vols fans rejoiced in the butt busting that was sure to come.
A holding call on the perimeter and far behind the ball nullified Whetstone’s 34-yard touchdown run but did nothing to ease the angst of UMS-Wright defensive coordinator Jay Koziol.
“Yeah, I was concerned,” he said. “Their guy hit it pretty quick. We got trapped. But we got the guys over to the sideline and made some adjustments.”
After Koziol instructed his linemen to get a hand on the guards, get their eyes inside and look for the pullers and “make the ball bounce an extra gap,” as he put it, Central Clay was never the same, scraping out just 96 yards rushing the rest of the game against six different looks.
“Without a doubt it was our best game,” Koziol said. “We’ve played well at times but our guys were on point and did an unbelievable job with their formations. They show you a lot and try to unbalance you. Even being undersized like we were, the effort we gave, it was fun to watch.”
Big hit, then nervous moments
Then came the incredulous moment on which the game turned, in the second quarter, when Bulldogs linebacker Perry Hand went unblocked and attacked Whetstone and quarterback Darren Harris as they were reading the defense and trying to decide who would get the ball. The recoil from Hand’s hit put Whetstone on his butt and the ball on the ground, whereupon McGinley got there faster than anybody and covered it with all of his skin and bones. Eight plays later, the Bulldogs had all the points they needed.
“We practice it,” Koziol said — as if tackling two people at once and causing a fumble a 143-pound lineman recovers is commonplace. “It’s called Q Read. Perry got really excited and charged the mesh point and tackled both of them. It was a huge play. Perry’s just a sophomore and he’s just learning how to play football. Once he figures it out, he’s going to be pretty good.”
But Koziol didn’t think the 7-0 lead was in concrete, not with 31 minutes to play.
“I was a nervous wreck,” he said. “They were averaging 40 points a game, we’re at their place, they’re well-coached and they know how to win.”
The game teetered on what seemed to be a fragile thread and the edginess kept building, punt after punt. The Vols kept waiting for a UMS-Wright error, which never came, and Horn was content to keep running, hoping a crack would eventually form. It didn’t.
Finally, Central Clay had to throw, trailing 7-0 with 2½ minutes to go, but the Bulldogs knew it was coming. Linebacker Caplyn Reed, another sophomore, blitzed and squeezed Harris up in the pocket, where McGinley collected a sack, then Hand slammed into a scrambling Harris for a small gain. The undefeated season ended with a bobbled snap and low throw that struck the wet ground near Horn’s feet on the sideline.
UMS-Wright quarterback Joe Lott knelt down a couple of times after that, then jogged toward the cheering Bulldogs fans.
“Yes! Yes!” Lott exulted afterward, partly in celebration and partly because he no longer had to run away from the Vols’ defense. He wasn’t sacked, as Curtis smartly had him rolling out most of the time, but his longest run was only 4 yards. It wasn’t feeding the masses with a loaf of bread but it was enough.
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