Note: This sports recap appears in the Wednesday, Sept. 11 newspaper on Page B2.
ATHENS — Athens coach Nathan White saw enough early-season film on Jackson to see that the Ironmen have been trying to spread the field and throw the ball.
He hoped that would be the Ironmen’s game plan going into Friday’s non-league game at Athens High School’s R. Basil Rutter Field.
“They’ve shown a bunch of doubles and trips and spreading it out on tape,” White said. “Honestly, I was kind of hoping that’s what they rolled in here with, but in the back of my mind I knew what they would do.”
Instead, the Ironmen got back to the basics and executed an old-fashioned, smash-mouth approach.
Jayden Spires and Brice Graham powered their way behind a strong effort by the offensive line, leading Jackson to a 31-26 win over Athens.
Spires finished with 126 yards on 24 carries and a touchdown, also catching two passes for 12 yards and a score. Graham added 82 yards and three touchdowns on 21 carries.
“I think offensively we got so much better than we did the week before (against Wellston),” Jackson coach Andy Hall said. “We wanted to run at these guys and we wanted to control the clock and so forth. Thought we were able to do that.”
Jackson gained 248 yards on 56 rushing attempts. The Ironmen had three scoring drives that lasted 10 plays or more.
“I thought we did a nice job with their technique (on the offensive line) and just getting enough push to where we get to the second level,” Hall said. “We weren’t able to break a long one, we didn’t think we probably would, but just kept that clock running.”
It was a strategy that did keep Athens’ high-powered offense off the field, allowing Jackson to build up leads of 19-0 and 25-6.
“The toughest part for us with an offense like that, we just don’t get as many series on our offense,” White said. “So we really had to make it count, and we did at the end.”
Jackson (2-0) was able to hold off Athens (0-2), which nearly completed a comeback.
Athens was able to cut the deficit to 25-19 and had the ball with a chance to tie the game.
Athens fell just short of that go-ahead drive. Jackson sophomore linebacker Grant Mastin chased down Moore for no gain to set up a fourth-and-eight from Athens’ own 38-yard line.
On the Bulldogs’ last best chance, Moore tried to find Braeden Halbert down the sideline on a deep pass. Jackson’s Garrett Daily provided the coverage on a ball that ended up falling out of bounds.
Jackson took over with just 3:53 remaining, and eventually scored on Brice Graham’s four-yard run with 1:05 left, putting the Ironmen up 31-19.
Athens did add a final touchdown, with Trainer catching a 13-yard pass from Moore with 38 seconds remaining.
The ensuing onside kick attempt failed, however, and Jackson took a knee to end the game.
“Coach White does a great job on the offensive side,” Hall said. “He’s always going to make you work for everything you get on the defensive end, but I was just happy with our guys gritting it out and everything else. It’s a big win for our program.”
Jackson controlled the first half, opening the game with a four-play, 30-yard scoring drive with Graham running it in from five yards out.
Jackson’s second drive covered 79 yards in 15 plays, taking 7:24 off the clock. Graham made it 13-0 when he took a pitch left and raced into the end zone.
Meanwhile, Jackson’s defense was able bend, but not break. Athens’ first drive reached Jackson’s 21, and its second drive got to Jackson’s 9-yard line. The Ironmen turned away Athens both times.
Jackson then embarked on a 91-yard drive that took 10 plays. The big play came on Treylan Davis’ 48-yard reception, and Spires’ 3-yard run gave Jackson a 19-0 lead at halftime.
The Ironmen eventually led 25-9 after Jared Icenhower found Spires open out of the backfield for a 9-yard touchdown pass. The drive was highlighted by Jackson digging itself out of a second-and-28 situation, thanks in large part to Tristan Prater’s 24-yard reception.
While Jackson successfully ran the football, Icenhower was still 6 of 8 passing for 110 yards.
“I’ve got a three-year starter at quarterback,” Hall said of Icenhower. “I’ve got some receivers and skill kids who can make plays, but we really wanted to keep their offense off the field as much as we could.”
Athens and Moore eventually showed why that was a good strategy. The Bulldogs started to pull back in the game when Moore connected with Peyton Gail on a 31-yard touchdown strike.
When Moore then hit Trainer keep for a 49-yard score, Athens only trailed 25-19, setting the state for Jackson’s dramatic win.
Moore completed 16 of 27 passes for 259 yards and three scores, adding 79 yards on 18 rushes. Trainer caught seven passes for 169 yards and two touchdowns.
“We kind of figured out that empty with no running backs was going to be what was best for us,” White said. “That’s kind of our strength and I think we were in empty every single play of the second half.”
The win was big for Jackson, as the Ironmen and Bulldogs both compete in Division III, Region 11.
It was the first meeting between the two programs since 2013, as the Ironmen now lead the all-time series with Athens 49-41-3.
“They’re going to win a bunch of games so this is a huge playoff opportunity for us,” Hall said. “That’s why we got back on the schedule with each other. Forty miles apart, we’re both Division III, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t play every year. It’s an old SEOAL rivalry. Jackson-Athens are rivals in any sport we play and it’s fun.
“We should play every year so it was nice to get them back on and it was a big win for the playoff situation that’s for sure.”
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Kevin Wiseman is sports editor of The Athens Messenger.