FORT PAYNE — For a second straight week, the Fort Payne Wildcats found themselves in a similar nail-biting, nerve-racking situation in the waning minutes of a game.
And once again, the Wildcats found themselves on the triumphant side of the outcome.
Michael Rich Jr. found Aulden Battles for a touchdown with 14 seconds left to pull Southside-Gadsden within one, but Rich’s ensuing 2-point conversion toss was short and Fort Payne survived the late scare for a 28-27 win at Wildcat Stadium on Friday night.
Rich rolled left and hit Battles with a pass in the shallow corner of the end zone to bring the Panthers (5-3, 2-3 Class 6A, Region 7) within a point. They called timeout and contemplated attempting an extra-point kick or a 2-point try.
“We were out of timeouts. Luckily they called one,” Wildcats coach Chris Elmore said. “I was glad we got to talk to our guys and get them to understand (Southside) was going for two to try to beat us.”
Rich had an open receiver on the 2-point attempt, but Fort Payne’s defense forced a quick, short throw to end the threat.
J.D. Blalock connected with Hunter Love late in the first half to pull the Wildcats (6-1, 4-0) within 14-13 at halftime. Blalock scrambled to find Love all alone in the left corner of the end zone for a 25-yard touchdown with 11 seconds left in the half.
Elmore opted for an extra-point kick, instead of attempting to tie the game with a 2-point conversion. Alex McPherson added the kick to bring Fort Payne within one point as the teams headed to the locker rooms.
The Panthers led by as many as eight points in the opening half with the combination of Rich and running back Carnel Davis challenging Fort Payne’s defense throughout.
Elmore was pleasantly surprised with how the defense handled the duo.
“I was afraid that we couldn’t stop them at all,” he said, “but I think, defensively, we stayed with them probably as well as you could expect.”
Fort Payne relied heavily on McPherson’s leg throughout the half. He kicked a 40-yard field goal with 3:53 remaining in the first quarter to put the Wildcats on the scoreboard at 3-0 and added a field goal from 25 yards to bring the Wildcats within 7-6 at the 7:50 mark in the second quarter after Southside scored on a 14-yard touchdown pass 3 minutes earlier.
Fort Payne’s Devin Wells recovered a Panthers fumble with 5 minutes remaining in the half, but Southside’s defense kept the Wildcats out of striking distance.
Davis wormed his way through defenders and scored on a 4-yard run with 1:34 left until the break to put the Panthers ahead 14-6.
Love rushed 14 yards for a score with 2:54 left in the third. After Fort Payne’s defense stopped Southside on a fourth-and-2 play on its own 29-yard line, Love ran to the right and scored on third down.
Southside regained the lead on its ensuing drive, capped by a Michael Rich 29-yard touchdown pass with 14 seconds left in the third to make it 21-20.
Love ripped off a 55-yard run to Southside’s 12-yard line, setting up a 10-yard scoring run by Blalock for the go-ahead score with 6:59 left in regulation. Love took the ensuing direct snap and completed a 2-point conversion run.
“We missed a lot of opportunities, but give Southside credit,” Elmore said. “I thought they did a good job, defensively, and they had a good plan against us. We just finally figured out some stuff we needed to do in the second half.”
Friday night’s win secured at least the region’s No. 2 seed heading into the state postseason, meaning the Wildcats will host a first-round playoff game.
Fort Payne travels to Pell City on Friday, before facing defending 6A state champion Oxford for the region championship Oct. 23.