While Sidnee Johnson’s interception clinched the game for Adairsville as the hosts were able to run out the clock, the second-year running back’s kick return earlier in the fourth quarter may have been the proverbial nail in the coffin for the Mountaineers.
North Murray had pulled within three points, 24-21, following a 14-play drive the bridged the third and fourth quarters, and the visitors seemingly had all the momentum. However, Johnson — just as he had when the Mountaineers took an early first-quarter lead — turned the tide with his big-play ability.
Despite that earlier kick return, which set up the Tigers’ game-tying touchdown, North surprisingly elected to kick to Johnson who had little reservation about what to do with the ball this time around.
“The first [kick return], I was just trying to make my way through and … not get tackled,” Johnson explained after two touchdowns and 259 all-purpose yards. “The second one, I just saw a hole and just hit it and [tried] to beat the kicker …
“I was just depending on my blocking and just trying to do my best to get the most yards, and my blocking what they had to do and I just got … the touchdown …”
Not only did Johnson eventually beat the kicker, he again punished the Mountaineers after fielding the ball on his team’s 5-yard line. With Johnson bursting straight up the middle of the kick coverage team, the 95-yard touchdown return extended the Adairsville lead to 10 points with 11:42 left to play.
Due to the fact it had nearly a quarter left to play, North Murray found its way back on the Tigers’ side of the field on two of their final three possessions, but Johnson broke up a fourth-and-13 pass from the Adairsville 13 and corralled the final Mountaineer turnover on first-and-10 from the 19. Marquel Lane intercepted a pass immediately following the Tigers’ last score.
Tigers coach Eric Bishop noted that the Tigers made some changes in the second half to try and slow North Murray, which opened the third quarter with a 80-yard drive that culminated with a 36-yard touchdown on Hinton McConkey’s fourth-and-8 pass to Jordan Adams.
“We adjusted right there in the middle of the third quarter … with what we were doing with our defensive ends and that helped out a little bit there,” Bishop said. “Our defense is doing what it takes to get the ball in our offense’s hands. Right now, [our] offense has to be more consistent.”
After benefitting from two big first-half plays on special teams and on defense, Adairsville’s offense had its longest drive of the night, a 10-play effort that covered 79 yards and ended with Austin Harris scoring from 24 yards out on a jet sweep. Dakota Hines’ extra point made it 24-14 in favor of the hosts with 7:34 in the third.
North Murray’s Drake McCowan provided his team with its third touchdown of the night four seconds into the fourth quarter, but the Mountaineers had just 14 seconds to enjoy the moment as Johnson broke the game open.
Though not the teeter-totter affair of last year’s 70-55 Adairsville win, Friday’s game featured highlight moments from both teams — albeit not many in the first half.
The Tigers’ offense faltered early in the ball game, but Adairsville trailed for just less than 20 seconds. The reason? A couple of big plays from its other units.
After North Murray went up 7-0 on McCowan’s 11-yard run — set up by Matthew Clayton’s 28-yard interception return — Johnson razzled and dazzled on the ensuing kickoff.
Taking the ball at his team’s 21-yard line, Johnson ran to his right and then his left.
Johnson’s uncertainty — to the Mountaineers’ detriment — continued a moment later as he went back right and then sprinted north, attempting to juke the kicker before stiff-arming him and falling down at the 7 for a 72-yard return.
A penalty on North Murray moved the ball to the 2 where Tristin Smith cashed in to tie the game at 7-all with 5:42 left in the first quarter.
Adairsville’s next drive also lasted a single play as Harris’ 37-yard fumble return set up a 5-yard touchdown run by Johnson with 1:49 in the first.
Neither team reached paydirt in the second quarter, though, as Hines’ booming 45-yard field goal sent the hosts into the half with a 17-7 advantage.
“We didn’t play as well as we wanted to in the first half. We felt like we squandered some chances. I mean, we had two holding penalties that put us behind the chains, and we had a batted ball interception that stopped another drive,” Bishop acknowledged. “We challenged them to come out [better] in the second half.”
The Tigers did just that, despite the Mountaineers’ own halftime adjustments which temporarily got visiting team going in the right direction.
“Their coaches do a great job. When we would try to adjust something and change something they did a good job of seeing what we were doing and adjusting back to it,” North Murray coach David Gann said. “… they did a good job of defending the pass. We wanted to throw the ball down the field a few times, and they [did] a good job of keeping three guys deep and staying on top of that stuff. …”
The Mountaineers (1-5, 0-3 Region 5-AAA) and Tigers (4-2, 2-1) are both off next Friday but return to the field Oct. 18. Adairsville visits Sonoraville while North Murray plays host to Ringgold.