Expectation different even after opening loss for Pelham

By ALEC ETHEREDGE | Sports Editor

HOMEWOOD — For the second year in a row, the Pelham Panthers and Homewood Patriots found themselves at Samford University on a Thursday night to kick off the football season as the two teams met in an opening game for the 2017 season on Aug. 24.

Last year the Panthers fell in a heartbreaker 21-14 after leading 14-0 with one quarter left to play and this year they found themselves on the opposite end of the spectrum trailing the entire game, but the outcome was just as heartbreaking.

After coming all the way back from a 22-7 deficit late in the third quarter, Pelham fell 29-22 when Homewood running back Nicholas McCoy put a dagger in the Panthers’ heart after pummeling into the end zone from 20 yards out with 40 seconds remaining in the game.

“I’m dang proud of the effort, I can’t say a word about that,” Pelham head coach Tom Causey said after the heartbreaking loss. “But we’ve got to finish games and win the rest of the season. The defense picked up way too many turnovers for us no to win.”

Being game number one, it definitely wasn’t a game of smoothly run offense as the first half was more than sloppy by both offenses.

It took 7:02 for a team to get a first down as the Patriots finally did so at the 4:58 mark of the first quarter, but on third and 15 Jackson Weaver of Pelham picked off Homewood’s Larkin Williams to end any sort of threat.

The teams traded three-and-outs in consecutive possessions after before another sloppy play led to the game’s first points.

With 1:29 left in the first quarter on their own 45-yard line, the Panthers fumbled the ball on their first snap of the drive after a pitch from quarterback Matthew Rye was behind the intended running back.

The ball bounced perfectly off of the Seibert Stadium turf into the hands of Homewood defensive back Kristopher Wilkins, who scooped the ball and took it 45 yards to the house for the game’s first touchdown and all of a sudden the Patriots led 7-0.

On the Panthers’ ensuing possession, the kickoff was fumbled and on first down they were penalized for an illegal procedure, which set them up with a first and 15 on their own 3-yard line.

Another tough snap and busted play led to an awkward handoff between Rye and running back Dylan Peterson as he was tackled in the end zone for a safety putting Homewood up 9-0.

Pelham went three-and-out again on its next possession as the offense continued to struggle, and the Patriots took advantage.

TyShawn Buckner was able to get the ball out of the backfield on Homewood’s ensuing drive and take it all the way to the house for a touchdown. After a missed extra point, the Patriots held a 15-0 lead with 10:15 to play in the first half.

Pelham finally got its first first down of the game on the next possession, but couldn’t capitalize as the teams traded three punts in a row.

On the third of those three punts, which came from the Panthers, Homewood made a terrible decision to field the ball and it went right through the return man’s fingers as Pelham recovered for the team’s first break of the night.

It took six plays behind some powerful running from three-year starting running back Nicholas Blackburn and junior Edward Gipson before a shuffle pass from Rye to Brandon Sledge led to a two-yard touchdown to cut the Homewood lead to 15-7 just before the half.

That’s where this one ended up at the half as all three scores in the game had come off of a turnover by the opposing offense setting up short fields.

It didn’t take long for that trend to continue into the second half as Pelham’s sloppiness showed up again by fumbling its first snap of the half after a solid kickoff return set them up near midfield.

Homewood wasn’t going to let another good opportunity escape them as Williams quickly found Buckner for a 20-yard touchdown pass to give him his second touchdown of the game and put the Patriots back up by 15 at 22-7.

“Anybody can take a game and say ‘if this doesn’t happen or that doesn’t happen,’ but those turnovers tonight literally cost us 16 points, otherwise we were on our way to a win,” Causey said.

Pelham went three-and-out on its next drive before the offense finally stepped up and started making some plays on its third drive of the second half.

The Panthers put together their best drive of the game that featured a 20-yard pass to Grayson Dill, a 25-yard pass to Gipson and two plays later another 15-yard pass to Gipson on the same exact route.

Shortly after, Blackburn capped off the 11-play drive by punching in a powerful run from nine yards out. Rye caught the Patriots defense off guard and was able to call a quick 2-point conversion attempt that he successfully ran in to make the score 22-15 with 30 seconds left to play in the third quarter.

Continuing that thought of catching the Patriots off guard, Causey decided to call an onside kick attempt on the ensuing kickoff and it worked to perfection as the Panthers recovered to take over on the Homewood 45-yard line.

Behind more powerful runs from Blackburn and Rye on the drive, Pelham was able to score in eight plays when Rye pitched the ball to Sledge for his second touchdown on the night to tie the game up at 22-22.

“Our offense came back when the chips were down and I don’t think anybody in the stadium tonight expected them to fight back like that, but they did,” Causey said.

Homewood was clearly on the ropes and after a few positive plays on their next possession, Pelham’s Tyler Hawkins picked off Williams on a ball that was floated over the middle of the field.

“Our defense played lights out tonight, I’m super excited about those kids,” Causey said of his defense that forced four turnovers.

All of a sudden, the Panthers had the ball with 6:10 remaining and a chance to take the lead for the first time since early in the first quarter.

Another solid kickoff return set them up on their own 43 in good field position again, but they fell back into the three-and-out slump as they were forced to punt the ball away.

Homewood took over on its own 15 with 4:45 left looking to put together a long game-winning drive.

Pelham had themselves in a good situation as the Patriots were boxed into a third and 11 from the Panthers’ 40-yard line, but Williams was able to pick up a 12-yard gain for a first down to keep the drive alive with one minute remaining on the clock.

A facemask on the next play put the Patriots on Pelham’s 20-yard line and the very next play, McCoy broke free up the near sideline for a touchdown to put Homewood up 29-22 with 40 seconds left and seal the thrilling victory.

“We talk about bad things happening and folding up and we had enough bad things happen tonight, but we never folded up,” Causey said of how proud he was. “We battled to the end, but it’s still a loss. I told them after the game was over our standards and expectations have changed.”

Pelham starts the season off 0-1, while Homewood moves to 1-0, but the Panthers had plenty to be proud of in that second half as they look to build confidence moving forward.

More photos available at Shelbycountyphotos.com.