FORT PAYNE — With their home crowd cheering behind them, Fort Payne’s defensive players kept the team’s playoff hopes alive in the final minute.

Hunter Love ran 28 yards for the go-ahead score with 1:48 left, and the Wildcats’ defense shut down Hartselle’s last-chance power drive to hang on for a 24-17 win in the first round of the AHSAA Class 6A state playoffs on Friday night.

“You’re not scared of anybody,” Wildcats coach Chris Elmore said to his team afterward. “You’re not afraid of the moment and I love you for it.” 

The Tigers (4-7) rallied from a 17-3 deficit and made things interesting by tying the game at 17 with 6:45 remaining. Cal George found Izayah Fletcher with a throw to the back-left corner of the end zone, before hitting Jayce Dubose with a 2-point conversion throw to even the score.

Love capped an 11-play, 80-yard drive with a breakout run up the middle on a third-and-2 play.

George’s last pass sailed above his intended receiver on fourth-and-4 from Fort Payne’s 40-yard-line with 55 seconds left. The Wildcats (9-2) ran out the clock.

Love ran for 187 yards with three rushing touchdowns for Fort Payne. Alex McPherson made a 27-yard field goal with 8 seconds left in the first half to give the Wildcats a 14-3 lead. Dylan Ledford intercepted a pass on a Hartselle third-and-long play late in the first period and returned it 10 yards, setting up Love’s second TD run. 

Wide receiver Carter Pinholster was injured in the first half and led to the Wildcats leaning heavily on the run game with Love and the offensive line working well to keep the offense moving.

“Carter Pinholster made some plays early before he got hurt,” Elmore said. “We had to change the game plan a little bit when he went out, but the coaches did a great job of adjusting and found a way.”

Fort Payne fumbled three times and lost possession all three times. The first fumble led to a 26-yard field goal to pull the Tigers within 7-3 with 4:38 left in the first quarter. The Wildcats fumbled on Hartselle’s 35 early in the second period, but the defense forced a punt. The third fumble was recovered on Hartselle’s 16 and led to a 38-yard field goal to make it 17-6 with 3 minutes left in the third. 

“We’re disappointed in the turnovers,” Elmore said. “...It was not easy and it was not pretty, but we grinded it out and made enough plays." 

After Fort Payne picked up an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty in the third, Nathan Crane broke through the Tigers’ O-line and sacked George for a 5-yard loss.

Hartselle fumbled on back-to-back snaps following a 35-yard run from George in the second quarter, but recovered the ball on both occasions. The drive stalled with a punt. 

Elmore said getting pressure on George was key to the Wildcats’ success in containing Hartselle’s passing game.

“We had to get pressure on him,” the coach said. “Matthew Shaddix played almost every snap, offense and defense, and he did a great job helping us in the secondary.” 

The Wildcats advanced to the second round, where they’ll host two-time defending Class 6A state champion Pinson Valley at 7 p.m. Friday.

“It’ll be great to be back here again at home,” Elmore said. “...What more could we ask for? We have an opportunity to play the best and see where we are.”

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