The crowd at West Lowndes High School on Friday night was mostly silent while watching the crucial two-point conversion.
When quarterback Elijah Johnson once again took matters into his own hands and crossed the goal line for the go-ahead score, the stadium erupted.
West Lowndes had looked nearly defeated towards the end of its Friday night matchup against Noxapater, but four minutes proved to be just enough time to string something together and walk away with a win.
The Panthers (3-1) scored 14 of their 22 points in the final minutes of the game and managed to overpower the Tigers (2-2), who became increasingly sloppy as the night wore on, 22-20.
Despite the victory, West Lowndes coach Anthony King was not pleased with his team’s overall performance.
“We made so many mistakes,” King said. “We shot ourselves in the foot every time; (we had) too many penalties at the wrong time. We’ve got to get better, this team’s got a long way to go.”
The turnaround came with exactly four minutes remaining in the game. Johnson broke multiple tackles on a long run downfield, ultimately being stopped at the Noxapater 11-yard line. Teammate Jaquavious Tate crossed the goal line with a 1-yard score just two plays later.
Although the Panthers’ two-point conversion attempt failed, there was still time to overcome a deficit of just six points. West Lowndes’ defense got out to a hot start on the following drive, pushing the Tigers behind the line of scrimmage with every stop. Eventually, it all came to a head: defensive tackle Trence Robertson knocked the ball out of a Noxapater athlete’s arms, and a slew of Panthers pounced to recover the fumble just two yards from the end zone.
With 2:39 remaining in the game, Johnson was able to push his way through a mass of Noxapater defenders for a 1-yard touchdown to tie the game at 20 apiece. He finished the two-point run to put the Panthers ahead.
Johnson finished the day with 26 rushing attempts for a total of 166 yards with two touchdowns. Tate was the other key playmaker for the Panthers’ offense, recording 72 yards and one touchdown on 13 total rushes.
The passing game was close to nonexistent for West Lowndes. Johnson went 1 for 5 through the air for only three yards with an interception. The pick didn’t directly lead to any points for the Tigers, but it came once the home team had finally picked up momentum midway through the first quarter and was heading down the field.
King emphasized his team’s need to succeed both on the ground and through the air, and he voiced his displeasure at the low yardage the Panthers put up.
“(I) only think we completed maybe one pass, and that was three yards, so we’ve got to get better at our passing game,” King said. “This team’s got to get better. We were blessed to come away with a win.”
The mistake that hurt West Lowndes the most was an alarmingly high number of penalties. The team recorded 16 total penalties on the night, ranging from false starts to unsportsmanlike conduct fouls. At one point in the second quarter, the Panthers committed four defensive penalties in a row. The biggest penalty of the night came in the third quarter when a kick return for a Panthers touchdown was called back.
Noxapater was able to score first in the game with a 44-yard rush by quarterback Kyle Phillips. The signal-caller also added a 73-yard touchdown run with 4:38 remaining in the third quarter and scored on a 14-yard rush with just under seven minutes to play.
Aside from the final four minutes of action, West Lowndes was only able to respond to the game’s very first touchdown with a 2-yard run by Johnson in the opening frame.
King hopes to continue to improve heading into a difficult district schedule by fixing crucial mistakes that were evident Friday night.
“We’re the district champs, so we’ve got that target on our backs, everybody coming after us,” King said. “Our guys (have) got to get smart and play better, and we’ve got to get us a passing game in there. I’m just thankful for this win tonight.”
West Lowndes will face Sebastopol on the road next Friday night in hopes of improving its district record to 2-0.
West Lowndes 22, Noxapater 20
Noxapater (2-2) 6 0 8 6 — 20
West Lowndes (3-1) 8 0 0 14 — 22
N — Kyle Phillips 44 run (run failed), clock 7:29
WL — Elijah Johnson 2 run (run), clock 2:04
N — Phillips 73 run (run), clock 4:38
N — Phillips 14 run (run failed), clock 6:29
WL — Jaquavious Tate 1 run (run failed), clock 4:00
WL — Johnson 1 run (Johnson run), clock 2:39
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