By Shannon Fagan, WEIS Sports Director
CENTRE – The Fort Payne Wildcats are no strangers to close football games this season. Four of their contests had been decided by nine points or less, including a heartbreaking 1-point loss on the final play against Athens last week. The Class 6A Wildcats went 1-3 in those games.
On Friday night against the Cherokee County Warriors, Fort Payne was once again faced with a close contest after building a two-touchdown advantage.
This time, however, the Wildcats were able to shut the door.
With the Warriors driving for the potential game-tying touchdown late in the game, senior linebacker Bennett Blanks rushed Warrior junior quarterback Carson Tittle from behind, knocking the ball loose near midfield. Wildcat senior defensive lineman Hayden Presley fell on the fumble at the Warrior 44-yard line with 1:30 to go.
Three plays yielded a Fort Payne first down, then junior quarterback Dax Varnadore took a knee to run out the clock in the Wildcats’ 21-14 victory.
It was the Warriors’ first loss of the 2023 season. They finished the regular season at 9-1 and fell short of the school’s first undefeated regular season since the state championship year of 2009.
“I think we needed a war like that,” Warrior coach Jacob Kelley said. “This is good medicine for us going into the playoffs, just like last year. It hurts because we were all wanting to finish the regular season undefeated, but the games roll on. The ball will be down next week. The sun will be up tomorrow. We’ll learn from this like we always do. Win or lose, we’re going to learn and we’re going to be better.
“It was a tough night for us, but that’s a good football team over there. They’ve lost some close ones all season long. We knew they were the best team we had faced all year, but we’ll be back.”
Kelley of course is referring to the Warriors’ Class 4A home playoff game on Thursday against Central of Florence. Kelley said both teams mutually agreed to move the game from Friday because of the Veterans Day holiday.
Fort Payne (6-4) is also going to the playoffs. They’ll host Mortimer Jordan in the first round of the 6A playoffs next Friday.
“I think you want to go into the playoffs playing your best,” Fort Payne coach Chris Elmore said. “Even though we lost last week (29-28 to Athens), we played really well. To come over here (to Centre) and play well again and win I think is good for our kids. Now we’ve just got to keep improving. It’s not going to be any easier next week because we won tonight, but it does feel better going into the playoffs on a big win.”
Elmore has his defense to thank for that. The unit held the Warriors well under their 45-point average and forced the game’s lone turnover. The Wildcats also held Warrior senior running back Jacob Cornejo about 40 yards under his average per game for the season.
Cornejo still had a solid night running the ball. He led the Warriors with 159 yards on 23 carries.
After a scoreless first quarter, Tittle connected with junior receiver Ben Frampton for the game’s first points on a 23-yard scoring strike early in the second quarter. Frampton’s extra point was blocked, keeping the score at 6-0 Warriors.
Fort Payne took the lead on its ensuing drive. The Wildcats marched 70 yards in 10 plays, capped off by Kaden DuBose’s 1-yard touchdown run. Connor Hughes provided the Wildcats a 7-6 lead with his extra point.
Following a Warrior punt, Blanks scored on a 7-yard touchdown run. Coupled with another Hughes PAT, Fort Payne held a 14-6 lead with 1:18 remaining in the first half.
The Warriors went three downs and out on their next possession and were forced to punt again. The Wildcats began a drive near midfield and marched all the way down to the Warrior 20, but time expired, keeping the score at 14-6 at halftime.
Cherokee County received the ball to being the second half, but once again, a drive stalled resulting in a punt.
The Wildcats capitalized with a 10-play, 81-yard drive in which Blanks scored again, this time on an 8-yard run with 4:12 left in the third quarter to give Fort Payne a 21-6 advantage.
But the Warriors refused to back down.
Fort Payne opened the fourth quarter with the ball again, looking to put the game away with another score, but a fourth-down Varnadore pass was batted down by Warrior defender Tripp Davis at Cherokee County’s 22-yard line to turn the ball over on downs.
“I thought when we got up 21-6 and got the ball back we might could go down and put the game away, but we didn’t,” Elmore said. “We probably should’ve kicked a field goal on that fourth-and-3. We thought we could get it. We liked the play we had called, but we didn’t get it and obviously it let them stay in the game.”
Seven plays later, Tittle hit Carson Chesnut over the middle for a 24-yard touchdown pass. Cornejo ran in for the 2-point conversion, making it a 21-14 game with 5:33 left to play.
Cherokee County’s defense forced another stop on Fort Payne’s ensuing drive. Following a Wildcat punt, The Warriors took over at their own 14 with 2:45 remaining in the game.
Tittle found Frampton on connections of 9 and 21 yards to move the Warriors near midfield, but that set up Blanks’ hit on Tittle to force a fumble in which Presley recovered.
“What a great play by (Blanks) just to knock it loose,” Elmore said. “If we don’t make that play, who knows? They were moving the ball. It was a big play by our defense that’s for sure.”
Tittle finished the game completing 9-of-18 pass attempts for 133 yards and two touchdowns. Frampton caught six passes for 81 yards and a score.
“We kind of showed what happens if people hurt us running the football we can throw the ball,” Kelley said. “We had some missed opportunities. We had a big dropped pass on a fourth down that Chesnut probably scores on, but we still fought back. Our defense played their tails off. That’s a good offense. They’ve scored a lot of points this season.
“We needed a war like that, win or lose. It didn’t go our way, but our guys are gritty. They’re hard-nosed. They’ll learn from it and we’ll be better off because of this game.”
Varnadore led Fort Payne by completing 17-of-25 pass attempts for 184 yards.