FORT PAYNE – On Friday night in front of a packed house at Wildcat Stadium, the Fort Payne Wildcats did what they weren’t able to do a year prior – finish strong and grab a win in their season opener.
The Wildcats overcame an early deficit and clawed the Pell City Panthers 28-13 to start their 2019 campaign on the right foot.
“It was better this year, especially on defense,” Fort Payne head coach Chris Elmore said. “We played great in the fourth quarter on defense, but we’ve got to finish drives better on offense. But, that comes with conditioning and it comes with playing games. When you play your first game on August 23, you’re going to get tired. We didn’t play as good in the fourth quarter as we did in the first half. That’s something we need to fix, and I think we can fix it.”
The game didn’t start the way Fort Payne wanted it to though.
Pell City was backed up to their own 5-yard line due to penalties on their opening drive, but the Panthers bounced back with a few deep passes down the field, including a 29-yard strike to from senior Kelton Seals to senior receiver Jarrod Posey to put Pell City up 7-0 less than four minutes into the game.
The early deficit didn’t faze the Wildcats a bit though.
Fort Payne’s offense responded loudly by marching 85 yards downfield in 13 plays. Starting quarterback J.D. Blalock went 4-for-4 on the drive, completing passes to Carter Pinholster, Sawyer Burt, Kevin Hightower and Matthew Shaddix.
Starting tailback Hunter Love had two carries that covered more than 10 yards on the drive and capped it off with a 1-yard dive across the goal line.
Alex McPherson hit the PAT to knot the score at 7-all with 4:12 left in the opening quarter.
The Wildcat defense then forced a 3-and-out before a shanked Pell City punt gave Fort Payne’s offense the ball just 41 yards away from the goal line.
Their first play saw Blalock connect with Shaddix for a 16-yard pickup. Their next play gave them the lead for good as Love broke multiple tackles while bowling his way down the right sideline for a 25-yard score.
After falling behind early, the Wildcats had scored twice in 2:11 of game time to jump ahead 14-7.
Pell City answered back with a 9-play, 80-yard drive that ended on a 2-yard touchdown run by Seals, but the Panthers’ PAT missed wide left to make the score 14-13 with 11:07 left in the first half.
The Wildcat offense followed with a strong drive that ended up being stifled by a penalty. Love opened the drive with runs of nine and 14 yards before Darwin Camp took off for eight yards to put the Wildcats near field-goal range.
Shaddix later moved behind center and completed a 15-yard pass over the middle to Pinholster to convert on third-and-long. Shaddix then had an 18-yard carry to the 3-yard line get called back for a holding penalty against the ‘Cats.
The drive stalled after the penalty, but McPherson still made it count on the scoreboard as he drilled a 36-yard field goal to put Fort Payne up 17-13 with 6:20 left in the half.
Pell City then had their next drive get ruined by penalties of their own. Their third play saw a 40-yard completion to Posey get called back for a hold. A play later, a personal foul backed them up to their own 13-yard line.
Two plays after the personal foul, Fort Payne’s defense scored their first points of the season. The Wildcat pass rush forced Pell City quarterback Mitchell Gossett to drop further and further back on third-and-long. Fort Payne sophomore Heisman Brown nearly wrestled him to the ground in the end zone before Gossett lateraled the ball back to a lineman who wasn’t an eligible receiver on the play. That move by Gossett blew the play dead and gave a safety and two points to the Wildcats, making the score 19-13 with 4:37 left in the half.
The following punt saw Fort Payne take over near midfield. Love, Shaddix and Camp combined to pick up 25 yards on the ground on the Wildcats’ first three plays of the drive before another holding call forced to stall out.
That forced McPherson to come out and try a 49-yard field goal, which he drilled through the uprights with room to spare to put the Wildcats ahead 22-13 at halftime.
After the break, Fort Payne kept that momentum rolling to start the third quarter when Pinholster took the second half kickoff to midfield.
The Wildcat offense followed with a 10-play, 51-yard scoring drive that ended when Shaddix was stood up near the 1-yard line and reached into the end zone for a 3-yard touchdown run.
A poor snap made the ‘Cats miss their extra point and set the score at 28-13 with 7:30 to go in the third.
Fort Payne’s defense then took over the game and forced Pell City’s next three possessions to end on turnovers.
“I thought our defense played tremendous,” Elmore said. “From that last part of the first half and then the entire second half, we shut them out, and that’s impressive against a team that has that many great players.”
Two snaps after Shaddix’s touchdown run, a deep pass down the left sideline was picked off by Fort Payne junior cornerback Cam Thomas.
After a Fort Payne punt, Pell City drove nearly 90 yards into the red zone before a fumble near the 10 was recovered by Wildcat junior lineman Mecai Maxwell, who also came up with a sack on that drive.
Pell City’s next drive saw them fire a deep pass on fourth-and-short that was broken up by Hightower to force a turnover on downs. The Wildcats then ran the clock down to under a minute before turning back over the Panthers on downs, but the clock ran out on Pell City’s next drive and gave the Wildcats a 1-0 start to the season.
Blalock complete each of his first six pass attempts in his quarterback debut and finished completing 10-of-11 for 78 yards.
Shaddix caught three of those passes for 29 yards. He also carried the ball a dozen times for 81 yards and a touchdown and completed one pass for 15 yards.
Love pounded his way through the Panther defense throughout the night and finished with 141 yards and two scores on 23 carries. Camp picked up 28 yards on eight handoffs.
Pinholster hauled in three passes for 38 yards and carried the ball once for an 11-yard gain. Burt caught two passes for 10 yards and Hightower caught one pass for a 12-yard gain.
McPherson booted two field goals, pinned the Panthers inside their own 20 twice on punts and had all but one of his kickoffs go into the end zone for touchbacks.
“He’s such a weapon,” Elmore said about McPherson’s performance. “I think he put every kickoff but one in the end zone. He’s mad about missing that extra point, but we didn’t have a very good snap or hold there, so that’s really not on him. He's just a great weapon. We’re glad he’s on our team and I’m glad I’ve got him for three more years.”
Fort Payne stays on their home turf again next week for their annual battle for the TopCat trophy against Scottsboro.