Hartselle never saw it coming.
Senior quarterback Tyler Glenn took the snap and zipped a lateral left to freshman signal-caller Ross Crocker, who shocked the Tiger D with a 46-yard heave to a wide-open Will Crenshaw for an insurance touchdown with 7:48 remaining in Cullman’s thrilling 14-6 home victory over its heated rival on Friday night.
Joseph Gable followed the exciting sequence with an interception on the very next play, bruising running back Garrett Crider gained a crucial first down to take some valuable time off the clock and the Bearcat defense stood strong on the last of many stops as time expired to clinch the upset of the No. 5 Tigers.
Black and Gold coach Mark Britton had every reason to believe the double pass involving Glenn, Crocker and Crenshaw will go down as one of the most signature plays in Cullman and Hartselle’s longstanding rivalry.
“When I went out there, I was scared to death,” Crocker said of his part in the razzle dazzle. “As soon as the ball came to me, I was like, ‘I got this. I’m going to make something happen.’ I thought I overthrew him, but I’m glad he caught the ball and scored.”
Added Britton: “I thought he might’ve thrown it just a little bit far with his excitement, but Will was able to come down with it, keep his feet and really, he was by himself.”
The Bearcats’ seniors came up clutch all night in their final shot at the Tigers, doing whatever it took to go out with what had proven to be an elusive win against Hartselle. But they had no problem giving a bit of the credit to a freshman — Crocker — and junior — Crenshaw — for their 46-yard connection.
“It’s his (Crocker) first time out here, and coming out and doing that is big, not just for him, but for our team as well,” said senior wide receiver Mason Jones, whose Black and Gold squad moved to 4-0 with their first victory in the series since 2007. “He stepped up big. For us, he helped our seniors get what we’ve been wanting all four years.”
With the 14-6 lead following the scintillating score, Gable gave Cullman another quick reason to celebrate by snaring a Jake Tiffin pass around the Tigers’ 45 and returning it to the end zone for a touchdown.
A block in the back negated the score, however, setting the Bearcats up at Hartselle’s 37. They were forced to punt three plays later, but the Tigers couldn’t do anything on their ensuing possession, either, kicking the ball back to the Black and Gold after a significant sack by senior defensive end Alex Martin on third down.
Crider moved the chains once with a gutsy 7-yard run on third down before Glenn pinned Hartselle at its own 7 with a pretty punt with 1:54 left in the rousing Class 5A, Region 8 contest.
The Tigers made Cullman sweat to the bitter end. They drove all the way to the Bearcats’ 30 before letting loose a last-second lob to Tobias Mitchell that hit the receiver’s hands but fell incomplete a step or two in front of the end zone as time ran out.
Just another crazy ending in a rivalry for the ages that’s never had trouble producing classic moments.
“Typical Hartselle. We get in the red zone trying to score, and they tighten up,” Britton said. “We miss two field goals left, but they missed a field goal. It was just one of those games that was like a heavyweight fight. They just kept going back and forth and back and forth.”
Jones and fellow senior Trey Moon had performances they’ll likely remember the rest of their lives. The former was good for 10 catches, 160 yards and a touchdown, while the latter came down with two first-half interceptions inside his own 10-yard line.
Moon was also the first man to the scene on a vital fourth-down stop late in the third quarter.
“It’s something you’re expecting to get during a game, and you just want to get it as bad as you can,” Moon said of his pair of picks. “And when you finally get a chance, it’s awesome. It helped so much getting the offense back on the ball.”
That O was clicking on all cylinders on the very first possession of the ballgame. Glenn was 5 of 6 on the opening drive with first-down passes to Auston Neal (11 yards) and Maison Goodwin (13) before hitting Jones on a 27-yard scoring screen pass to the right less than three minutes into the showdown.
All the talk leading into the battle of unbeatens was about Hartselle’s unrelenting defense, but as the Tigers came to find out, the Black and Gold D can ball with the best of them, too.
Hartselle’s only points came on a pair of field goals by Jack Waterman — a 24-yarder with 26.1 seconds in the first quarter and a 44-yarder shortly after halftime.
Martin had 1.5 sacks when all was said and done. Fellow senior Chaz Brouillette accounted for the other half.
“Any time you’re able to keep Hartselle out of the end zone without a touchdown, my hats off to the defense, just a super effort,” Britton said. “We kept calling on them time after time. That’s why we were punting and trying to pin them deep and give them 80-90 yards to have to go.”
Glenn was as great as ever, finishing 16 of 23 with 191 yards, the score to Jones and an interception on a catchable throw that bounced off his receiver’s hands. Crocker had just the one pass, but made it count with his touchdown to Crenshaw.
Crider led Cullman’s ground game with 48 yards on 18 carries, just ahead of Crenshaw’s 45 on 10.
Goodwin and Neal roped in 23 and 15 receiving yards, respectively, on two catches apiece — and surprise, Crenshaw also contributed in the air attack with a pair of receptions for 47 yards.
“I thought (offensive coordinator) Kenny Gleaton did a great job and thought my defense really stepped up. Coach (Jonathan) Romine did a super job tonight on calls,” Britton said of the secondary coach who’s stepped up in defensive coordinator Matt Hopper’s absence. “I’m just really proud of the whole group.”
Tiffin concluded the night 23 of 41 with 280 yards and three interceptions. The sophomore’s hottest targets were Zeth Malcom — seven catches for 54 yards — and Ja’Mal Jackson — five for 63. Five other Hartselle receivers had at least 27 yards.
D’Andre Mack’s 75 rushing yards on 16 carries were tops for the Tigers.
As the only 4-0 teams in the region, Cullman and Muscle Shoals head into next week’s non-region matchups as the front-runners for home-field advantage.
The Bearcats will look to stay perfect on the road against 3A power Madison Academy, while Hartselle will try to rebound at 6A Decatur.
% Rob Ketcham can be reached at 256-734-2131, ext. 138 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.