VERNON, Ala. — The Lamar County High School football team needed one big offensive play Friday night.
Freshman tailback Alex Wheeler provided it.
Wheeler”s 1-yard touchdown run with 10 minutes, 40 seconds left in regulation helped Lamar County knock off arch-rival South Lamar 6-0 before a standing-room-only crowd at George Bell Stadium in the season opener for both teams.
“This was such a tough game,” Wheeler said. “They played great defense, and we did, too. Fortunately, we came out on the good end. The main thing is the team came together late and found a way to win. I am really proud of everybody tonight.”
The Bulldogs made amends for last season”s 27-20 season-opening loss to the Stallions. Lamar County has won three of the past four series meetings.
“I am very proud of the guys tonight because they played hard,” Lamar County coach Ken Adams said. “We played awfully hard for four quarters. I thought every snap of the game, the guys were alive and giving their all. You can coach and correct mistakes when you get the effort we got tonight.”
For a season opener, the two-hour contest was crisp, well-played, and highly intense. The contest featured 16 possessions. Besides the touchdown, five possession ended in punts, four ended on downs, three ended with turnovers, two ended each half, and South Lamar missed a field goal.
“We played hard and we really stayed together,” Lamar County cornerback Eric Smith said. “As long as we do that, we have a chance to be successful. When the fans thought we had given up, we kept believing. We knew if we ever found a way to score, we could win the game.”
To call the contest a defensive struggle would be an understatement. The teams combined for 15 first downs and 233 yards. Since 84 offensive plays were run, the teams averaged less than 3 yards per snap.
Still, each team had some opportunities.
After an interception by South Lamar”s Hank Parker, the Stallions were in business at the Lamar County 36. The takeaway was given right back when Josh Smith recovered a fumble two plays later.
It was the second takeaway by the Bulldogs. Tyler Sprouse snuffed South Lamar”s first possession with an interception. All three of the game”s turnovers were scattered over the game”s first six possessions.
South Lamar”s final possession of the opening half proved to be the game”s best. The Stallions moved from their 8 to the Lamar County 19. The 12-play drive came to a halt in the waning seconds of the half when Tyler Riley had a 36-yard field goal fall short.
“At halftime, we knew it was a new ballgame,” Wheeler said. “After that miss there, we had a lot of confidence. Being able to come out in the second half and win this game really picks up our confidence.”
In the final half, Allen and Sprouse sparked a ferocious Lamar County defensive effort. The Stallions had minus-27 yards rushing in the game”s final 24 minutes. A 30-yard pass play in the closing seconds allowed the Stallions to finish with 29 yards of offense in the second half.
“It was how we drew it up,” said Sprouse, a junior linebacker. “We had the momentum throughout the whole game. We knew we had to stay in it and play for four quarters. That was the difference in the ballgame. The defensive effort tonight was great. We got to do that again next week, if we want to be 2-0.”
Lamar County had its own golden threat in the first half. On the possession before the South Lamar field goal try, the Bulldogs drove from their 34 to a first-and-goal at the South Lamar 1.
Parker and Jason Lawson spearheaded the South Lamar defensive effort as the Bulldogs would be denied. After stopping two quarterback sneaks, a motion penalty moved Lamar County back out to the 6. Following a 2-yard tackle for loss by Parker, Lamar County turned the ball over on downs when quarterback Dallas Cockerham threw out of the back of the end zone.
“We left way too many points on the field,” Adams said. “But for a team as relatively young as we are, this is such a huge win. Our offensive production has to get better, and it will. The ceiling for this team is unlimited. I am just proud of how hard we played, even when things didn”t go our way.”
A South Lamar special teams” miscue opened the door for the game”s only points.
On its second possession of the second half, South Lamar bobbled a snap on a fourth down punt attempt. The play resulted in an 11-yard rushing loss and set Lamar County up 16 yards from paydirt.
It took six plays before the Bulldogs covered those 16 yards. Landon Williams broke two tackles on a third-and-5 run from the 11. Lamar County again hurt itself with back-to-back penalties — one wiping out a potential touchdown catch by Alexander Denton.
South Lamar gave one of the penalties back, placing the ball on the 7-yard-line. On second down, Cockerham kept for 6 yards before Wheeler had no problems plowing in from 1 yard out one play later.
“The offense was real frustrated at halftime,” Allen said. “Then (junior) Colby Bradford gave us a real good speech. It motivated all of us. We knew if we could find a way to have one good drive, we could win this one.”
Lamar County forced a South Lamar punt and took six minutes off on a ball-control, game-clinching possession.
South Lamar finally got possession back with 49 seconds left on its 25. Quarterback Trent Wilson hit Jordan Smith on a 30-yard pickup down to the Lamar County 45. Two plays later, Sprouse and company recorded the team”s ninth tackle for loss to seal the victory.
For the contest, Lamar County held an 8-7 advantage in first downs. The Bulldogs ran 40 times for 119 yards, while completing one pass for 16 yards. South Lamar finished with 42 yards rushing on 26 carries and a 5-of-12 night through the air for 56 yards. Each team finished with seven penalties.
Next week, Lamar County will open Class 2A, Region 8 play by visiting Cherokee. South Lamar will play its home and Class 1A, Region 5 opener against Hubbertville.
Scott was sports editor for The Dispatch.