Conor Foster didn’t know who made the fumble recovery that sealed a come-from-behind win Friday, because he was already celebrating a victory in his debut as Cartersville head football coach.
In a game where the Cartersville defense bent but never broke, the Canes — ranked No. 1 in Class 4A — came up with one final clutch play with under 90 seconds to go. With Class 6A's seventh-ranked team, Allatoona, driving for a possible go-ahead score, Devonte Ross stripped the ball from receiver Asante Das. As Foster and the Cartersville sideline went crazy, Kolbe Benham jumped on the ball to secure a 14-13 road win.
“Just proud of our fight tonight,” Foster said. “Everything didn’t go our way tonight, but great teams find a way to win. I just believe in this team, believe in our program and believe in hard work. Our kids, our coaches and our community have invested in this program. It’s a lot of fun to see it pay off tonight.”
For most of the night, it didn’t look like it would be a happy beginning to the Foster era. Cartersville (1-0) saw its offensive struggle from last week’s scrimmage against Dalton carry over into Friday's first half with turnovers, negative plays and penalties derailing promising drives.
An interception set up Allatoona (0-1) for a school-record, 54-yard field goal by Jude Kelley. A fumble gave the Bucs great field position again, but Kelley’s 49-yard attempt early in the second quarter missed wide.
However, the Bucs eventually doubled their advantage on Kelley’s third attempt — this one from 43 yards out — with just under 5 minutes left before halftime.
Cartersville looked as though it would possibly break through late in the half. Senior quarterback Tee Webb hit Ross on a screen pass that would have gone for 52 yards into the Allatoona red zone, but a holding penalty negated the potentially huge play.
The Canes settled for a 6-0 deficit at the break.
“It was fun to see them not panic and settle down,” Foster said of the offense. “I really didn’t think we had a bad night. … I think we’re really close to being special.”
Following a picture perfect punt by Kelley, Cartersville began its opening drive of the second half from its own 2-yard line. It took just one play to do what the Canes failed to do in the opening half — put points on the board.
Quante Jennings broke through the initial wave of Allatoona defensive players but looked set to be dragged down near midfield. But the sophomore running back made a nifty move, found a second wind and finished off the 98-yard touchdown, which will go down as one of the longest in program history.
“We always tease him about being a little slow, so it was fun to see him house that thing,” Foster said. “I’m sure I’ll be hearing about it in film next week.”
Overall, Jennings finished with 171 rushing yards on 17 carries. With Marcus Gary graduated, Jennings will be the team’s premier running back this season. In fact, outside of a Webb keeper on the first play of the game, he had every carry for the Canes on Friday.
“Quante is going to be a big player for us this year,” Webb said. “I really do like him a lot. He’s come a long way from last year. He’s waited his turn, and I’m really excited about Quante and what he’s going to show.”
After Oscar Hernandez’s extra point gave Cartersville a 7-6 lead, Allatoona came punching right back with a long return on the ensuing kickoff.
The Canes, though, stood firm yet again. They had a chance to force another field-goal try, but decided to accept a holding penalty to give the Bucs another chance on third down. Allatoona took advantage with only its third completed pass of the game. A 2-yard touchdown run on the next play allowed the Bucs to grab a 13-7 lead with four minutes to go in the third quarter.
Allatoona had a chance to make it a two-score game with only 5 minutes to go. But Kelley, a preseason all-state selection, missed his second try of the night — this one a 47-yarder — to give Cartersville one final chance.
And the Canes seized the opportunity. Webb, a preseason all-stater himself, responded with a 15-yard pass to Amarai Orr. Three plays later, the Louisville commit fired off a sidearm pass to Sam Phillips. The junior wide receiver caught the ball in stride and went untouched for a 59-yard touchdown to tie the game.
“They blitzed everybody pretty much, and there was a big hole in the middle,” said Webb, who completed 9-of-17 passes for 134 yards. “Sam split the safeties, and ended up going all the way. It was awesome.”
Phillips’ contributions, which included four catches for 97 yards, weren’t over yet. With Marquail Coaxum banged up, Phillips stepped up as the team’s holder for the point-after try. He fielded a low snap, and Hernandez booted the Canes back into the lead.
“Nerves of steel,” Foster said of Phillips. “Make a huge play there at the end, all excited, adrenaline going and have to turn around to maybe make the play of the game with that PAT. It was a low snap, and he handled it just as calm as he could be. Very proud of him.”
Despite Phillips’ heroics, the Bucs had one final chance, taking over possession with 3:21 on the clock.
After a pair of rushing attempts, including a key tackle-for-loss by linebacker Gavin Geros, Allatoona finally aired the ball out. Senior quarterback Dante Marshall connected with Das, who picked off Webb earlier in the game. Das turned upfield and was into Kelley’s range, when Ross came flying in to punch the ball free and set off wild celebrations on the visitors’ side of the stadium.
“The defense is, I believe, the best defense in the state,” Webb said. “They always bail us out in tough situations and always keep us in the game. I can’t thank them enough or appreciate them enough for all they do for us.”
Foster maintained his role of defensive coordinator, which he had held for five years, after taking the head-coaching job following Joey King's departure. Foster showed his appreciation for Ross after the game, holding him in a long embrace before addressing the team.
“We had some guys who were banged up, some guys who were cramping and some guys who were playing through pain, because that’s the expectation,” Foster said of his defense. “My heart is swelled up with pride. I’m just very thankful for how hard they played.
“Tonight, the defense carried us a little bit, but there will be other nights when the offense carries us. That’s what’s going to make us a special group.”
At the end of the night, it wasn’t a crisp performance from Cartersville. But even with their backs against the wall, the Canes found a way to make the plays they needed.
Following a week off, Cartersville has home games against Luella and McNair to begin September before its next real test against Cherokee. Even with the setbacks Cartersville suffered at times Friday, Foster believes the hard-fought win will only make his team better.
“It was really fun to see them come together,” he said. “Sometimes, you come together more in that time of struggle, when you find a way to win.
"I think it reinforces what we’ve telling them all along, ‘We’ve got a great bunch. Even when we’re not at our best, we’re still really tough.’ Our kids just kept fighting and found a way to win. I’m really proud of them.”