SPRING GARDEN – The first two weeks of the 2022 high school football season, the Spring Garden Panthers kept the mistakes to a minimum, leading to a pair of wins heading into their Class 1A, Region 6 battle with Wadley.
The Bulldogs were quite the opposite. They were their own worst enemy by making mental mistakes and turning the ball over in a 0-2 start.
The two teams’ roles were reversed on Friday night.
The second-ranked Panthers committed five turnovers and finished with just 131 total yards in a 9-0 setback. It was the first time Spring Garden had been shut out since a third-round playoff game in 2018 at Pickens County (13-0).
Panther head coach Jason Howard blamed no one but himself for the loss.
“Terrible play calling on my part. It had nothing to do with them,” Howard said. “I didn’t get us in sets we should’ve been in. I didn’t have us ready. It’s all on me. I couldn’t get us ahead of the chains. We had to do things we weren’t comfortable with. I’ve got to figure out what we’ve got to do.”
As disappointed as Howard was, Wadley head coach Shenan Motley was elated to see his Bulldogs earn a hard-fought win.
“I’m super proud and excited for this group,” he said. “We’ve really got a whole new offensive line. We’ve been working them and working them and working them. It’s hard to keep motivated when you start those first two games 0-2, but we come up here and played physical. I knew we had a physical group, but we’re young too.
“Our defense stepped it up. They’ve stepped up and give us an opportunity to win those other two, but our offense has got to get better and be able to grind it out a little more.”
Grinding it out was a good description of how the game transpired. The Bulldogs (1-2, 1-0) scored the only points of the first half on a Brock Baldridge 26-yard field goal with 3:49 remaining in the opening quarter following a Spring Garden fumble recovered by Cortavion Lynch.
On the ensuing drive, Panther quarterback Chapel Pope was picked off by Frisco Robertson to keep the score at 3-0 at the end of a quarter.
Following a Wadley punt, Spring Garden drove the ball down inside the Bulldog 20-yard line, but turned the ball over again on a Pope fumble that was recovered by the Bulldogs’ Ty Taylor.
The Panthers’ defense forced another Wadley punt that landed at the Bulldog 28. Once again, Spring Garden appeared as if it would take the lead as the Panthers drove inside the 5-yard line, but on fourth-and-goal from the 4, Pope’s pass fell incomplete to end the first half.
Spring Garden received the third-quarter kickoff and drove inside Bulldog territory, but was forced to punt.
Panther defender Reece Winstead intercepted Wadley quarterback Mason Wilkerson to give the Spring Garden offense the ball back, but the unit went three and out and was forced to punt again.
Wadley made a substantial in the fourth quarter, marching inside the Panther 25, but Spring Garden’s defense rose up again to stop the Bulldogs on a fourth-and-8 to get the ball back to the offense.
However, the Panthers had another three and out and were forced to punt for the fourth time in the second half.
This time, Wadley’s offense broke through. Following a 15-yard run by Lynch, and a Spring Garden penalty, the Bulldogs found themselves at the Panther 8 with time running down.
On a fourth-and-goal from the 3, Wilkerson found senior receiver Isacc Minnifield for a touchdown with 1:49 to go in the game. The Panthers’ John Welsh blocked the extra point, keeping the score at 9-0 Bulldogs.
Pope was intercepted by Robertson a second time on the Panthers’ following drive, but the Bulldogs gave the ball right back on a Wilkerson fumble that was recovered by Connor Bates. Pope was picked off again a third time by Robertson, who returned the ball down to the 5 with 30.5 seconds left.
Wilkerson took a kneel down, and the Bulldogs escaped with their first win of the season.
“It’s hard to get in there and grind for four quarters. It’s a mentality thing,” Motley said. “We didn’t do a good job until right there at the end. For some reason, we just got it in our heads (to score a touchdown). We had a good situation. We were inside the 30, then we got a penalty that helped us out a little bit. It motivated us to drive it in. I’m proud of them.
“Spring Garden’s got a great football team, no doubt about it. I told Coach (Howard) we’re probably going to see each other again if we can stay in it, but we’ve got some good teams in our region, and they’re going to be physical. We had a hard time moving the ball offensively. We’ve got to work on that and be able to grind (because) that’s our offense. That’s what we’re going to do, but we’ve got to be able to do it. We didn’t do a very good job of it for three-and-a-half quarters tonight.”
Lynch led Wadley with 52 yards on 13 carries. Jaquez Wilkes gained 32 yards on 16 carries.
Bates led Spring Garden with 51 yards on 16 totes. He also posted seven tackles and recovered a fumble on defense. Cam Welsh added 48 yards on eight carries and caught three passes for 45 yards. Pope completed four passes for 63 yards.
Spring Garden looks to rebound at Victory Christian on Friday. Wadley returns home to face Donoho.