By Rob Ketcham
The Cullman Times
It’s never safe to count out Cullman, especially in the first round of the playoffs.
After trailing by 14 early in the third quarter, the Bearcats scored three unanswered touchdowns, the last as time expired, to stun Moody 20-14 Friday night at Oliver Woodard Stadium.
On the final play, Trey Moon took the handoff at the 1 and fumbled the ball into the end zone, where Auston Neal fell on it to cap off the thrilling comeback victory.
“It means a lot,” said Neal, a senior wide receiver who also threw the game-winning pass in Cullman’s heart-stopper against Athens. “I’m just so proud of my team. It shows that everybody really understood that it was do-or-die and we had to go. We made some big adjustments at halftime, and we just came out and executed. Couldn’t ask for anything more.”
Neal’s heroic recovery was the seventh play in a strikingly efficient 83-yard drive that began with only 1:20 left on the clock. The Bearcats (8-3) had no problem moving down the field in a jiffy both with the run — 30 of Garrett Crider’s 141 rushing yards came on the possession — and the pass — Tyler Glenn completed 11- and 21-yard throws to Seth Donaldson and a 20-yarder to Neal.
The Black and Gold took a timeout following Crider’s final carry, a 6-yarder that set them up just outside Moody’s goal line with 5 seconds remaining. Instead of going for the short field goal, coach Mark Britton and staff opted to test the Blue Devils’ D and go for six — and the risk paid off, even if the ending was a bit unconventional.
“As long as we score,” Britton said of the fumble and subsequent recovery. “They were really close on blocking a couple of extra points and those type things. We were moving them, so we just felt like we were going to go for it right there. I’m real excited about it.”
The second half was far kinder to Cullman than the first. By intermission, the Bearcats only mustered five passing yards, 45 rushing yards and a single first down on a 17-yard run by Glenn.
Moody (6-5), meanwhile, moved the ball with ease and drained 16 minutes and 47 seconds of clock in the first and second quarters.
Devante Williams capped off a 14-play, 79-yard drive with a 3-yard scoring scamper to give the Blue Devils a 7-0 lead shortly before halftime. The tailback had 35 of his 82 first-half rushing yards on the possession.
The start of the third quarter looked like much of the same for the Black and Gold. Terrell Martin somehow broke free for a 63-yard touchdown catch from Michael Barron on just the third play of the second half, and Jake Crain stopped Cullman’s ensuing drive with an interception in the end zone.
But then the Bearcats began to look like the Bearcats for the first time since their Week 8 win over Athens.
Moon closed the deficit to 14-7 with a 1-yard run on fourth-down midway through the third quarter, and Crider tied it up with a 4-yard burst up the middle early in the final frame, setting the stage for the knee-knocking finish.
The Black and Gold wound up piling on 291 total yards in the second half and 341 overall. The effort was extremely balanced with 173 coming on the ground and 168 through the air.
“At halftime, we were trying to find out what the deal was. We just weren’t playing our ball,” Britton said. “The biggest difference is our kids decided to play in the second half. I applaud our seniors for rallying these guys and getting them going.”
Added Neal on the adjustment: “They’re a good team, but we were killing ourselves. We just weren’t making our assignments. We came out in the second half and did it.”
Cullman’s smothering defense came through in the clutch once again. After allowing the quick touchdown right out of halftime, the unit forced Moody to punt away its last five possessions. The fourth stop was arguably the biggest considering the Blue Devils took over at the Bearcats’ 34 following a muffed punt.
Connor Moon demoralized Moody with a 3-yard sack on third-down early in the fourth quarter.
“I thought our defense played a great game,” Britton said. “They gave us opportunities and had a couple of big stops.”
Glenn ended the evening 11 of 18 for 133 passing yards and gained 20 rushing yards on four carries.
Will Crenshaw joined Crider in the rushing attack with 11 totes for 44 yards.
Donaldson was the Black and Gold’s leading receiver with four catches for 59 yards to go along with a fumble recovery on a punt early in the ballgame. Austin Neal (39 yards) and Maison Goodwin (10) each had a pair of receptions, while Dawson Drake hauled in one pass for 20 yards.
The Blue Devils’ Barron finished 7-of-16 passing for 117 yards — all to Martin — and rushed 10 times for 50 yards. Williams was a workhorse with 30 carries for 132 yards.
Cullman is bound for the second round for the eighth year in a row and 11th time in the 13 seasons since 2000. The Bearcats will head to No. 4 Southside-Gadsden, which stayed undefeated with a 30-14 win versus Wenonah, next Friday.
“It’s expected,” Neal said of the Black and Gold’s first-round success. “They drill us from the Fourth of July to right now. “We’re not happy unless we get to right here and we keep going. This year, we’re looking to go even further than that.”
To make that last morsel a reality rather than a dream, Neal knows the work is far from over for Cullman.
“That’s what coach Britton was saying,” the smiling senior said. “He told us to celebrate right now but be ready for (practice) at 2:30 on Monday.”
% Rob Ketcham can be reached at 256-734-2131, ext. 138 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.