Note: This recap appears in the Sunday, Sept. 8 newspaper on Page B1.
Athens head coach Nathan White might only have two games under his belt as a head varsity coach, but he has been around football long enough to know the Bulldogs proved something on Friday, even in defeat.
“This is my 15th year coaching and I’ve never been so proud of a group of kids,” White said, who spent the previous eight seasons as an assistant for the Bulldogs. “Very rarely in high school do you go in and do the halftime (speech), ‘this isn’t over, let’s keep fighting.’ I looked at all of them and said, ‘man, let’s battle.’”
The Bulldogs did just that, showing plenty of fight despite a 31-26 loss to the Jackson Ironmen on Friday at R. Basil Rutter Field.
Jackson enjoyed leads of 19-0 and 25-6 before Athens came a drive away from potentially stealing the win away from the Ironmen.
“They responded,” White said. “I tell you what, I’m so proud of these kids. Obviously, we want to win and it hurts just as bad that we lost, but so proud of their effort.”
The Bulldogs are off to an 0-2 start to the season, but have lost two games by a combined eight points to a pair of unbeaten teams.
Junior quarterback Joey Moore took another step forward in his development as Athens’ quarterback as he nearly completed what would have been an epic comeback.
Moore completed 16 of 27 passes for 259 yards and three touchdowns, finishing the game with zero turnovers. He was also Athens’ lone running threat of the night, gaining 79 yards and another score on 18 carries.
The Bulldogs opted to use an empty backfield for most of Friday, and eventually found success.
“I told our kids at the end of the first quarter, trust me, I’m going to figure this thing out offensively,” White said. “We kind of figured out that empty with no running backs was going to be what was best for us. That’s kind of our strength and I think we were in empty every single play of the second half.”
Senior Nate Trainer benefitted from the attack, catching seven passes for 169 yards and two scores.
Trainer’s 49-yard touchdown reception with 6:48 remaining brought Athens back to within 25-19.
“I’m proud of a lot of these kids but Nate is kind of our heart and soul,” White said. “So proud of him. Kids really feed off his effort. Not surprising that he made some really big plays in a big game.”
Athens’ defensive unit faced a tough challenge in Jackson’s power running game, but forced a three-and-out after Trainer’s score and got the ball back in Moore’s hands.
However, Athens fell just short of that go-ahead drive. Jackson sophomore linebacker Grant Mastin chased down a scrambling 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 (2-0) took over with just 3:53 remaining, and eventually scored on Brice Graham’s four-yard run with 1:05 on the clock, 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.
“They’ve got great athletes on the perimeter,” Jackson coach Andy Hall said of Athens. “They made some great catches tonight and they kept themselves in the game. Congrats to them, coach White does a great job on the offensive side. He’s always going to make you work for everything you get on the defensive end.”
The game was a battle of contrasting styles, as Jackson opted to run the football, control the clock and keep Athens’ offense off the field.
Senior tailbacks Jayden Spires and Brice Graham carried the load behind Jackson’s offensive line. Spires led the way with 24 carries for 126 yards and a score, also catching two passes for 12 yards and another touchdown. Graham had 82 yards and three touchdowns on 21 carries.
“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.”
To that end, Jackson’s strategy worked. Its second scoring drive covered 79 yards on 15 plays, taking 7:24 off the clock.
Jackson also added scoring drives of 10 plays, 91 yards and 5 minutes as well as 15 plays, 70 yards and 7:42 off the clock.
“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. They really pounded us early and our kids adapted and we did a nice job.
“The touhgest part for us with an offense like that, we just don’t get as many series on our offense,” White added. “So we really had to make it count, and we did at the end.”
Jackson led 19-0 at halftime thanks to two touchdown runs by Graham, covering 5 yards and 10 yards and a 3-yard scoring run by Spires.
Moore got Athens on the board with a 14-yard scramble on Athens’ first drive of the second half, but Jackson’s 15-play, 70-yard drive was capped off by Jared Icenhower’s 9-yard scoring pass to Spires.
Icenhower still made plays for Jackson despite the ground approach, completing 6 of 8 passes for 110 yards.
Jackson led 25-6, but Athens got up off the mat. Moore found Peyton Gail for a 31-yard deep ball on a third-and-10 play.
When a Jackson drive stalled out, Athens creeped closer thanks to Trainer’s 49-yard score and the Bulldogs were back in it.
The next challenge will still be another difficult one for the ‘Dogs, as they travel to 2-0 Parkersburg South on Friday.
Despite two tough losses to start the season, White knows that plenty of winning nights will be ahead of the Bulldogs if they continue to show the same tenacity they did during Friday’s comeback bid.
“At the end of every day, we talk about tomorrow,” White said. “When we wake up is going to be the best day we’ve ever had and nothing will change. Tomorrow, when we roll in here, we’re going to be sore and tired and we’re going to run and lift and watch tape and do everything we can to become a better football team tomorrow. Then we’ll wake up Monday morning and go after it again.”
Jackson 31, Athens 26
Jackson 13 6 6 6 — 31
Athens 0 0 12 14 — 26
J — Brice Graham, 5-yard run (Isaac Kuhn kick), 10:33, 1st
J — Brice Graham, 10-yard run (kick failed), :43, 1st
J — Jayden Spires, 3-yard run (kick failed), 2:22, 2nd
A — Joey Moore, 14-yard run (kick failed), 10:47, 3rd
J — Jayden Spires, 9-yard pass from Jared Icenhower (kick failed), 3:03, 3rd
A — Peyton Gail, 31-yard pass from Joey Moore (pass failed), :17, 3rd
A — Nate Trainer, 49-yard pass from Joey Moore (Drake George kick), 6:48, 4th
J — Brice Graham, 4-yard run (pass failed), 1:05, 4th
A — Nate Trainer, 13-yard pass from Joey Moore (Drake George kick), :38, 4th
First downs 20 15
scrimmage 63 47
(plys-yds) 56-248 20-77
Passing yards 110 259
Total net yards 358 336
(cmp-att-int) 6-8-0 16-27-0
Fumbles (no-lost) 1-0 0-0
Penalties (no-yds) 4-59 8-43
Punts (no-avg) 2-20 1-36
Jackson — Jayden Spires 24-126 TD, Brice Graham 21-82 3 TDs, Mitchell Johnson 4-27, Brice Parks 2-6, Jared Icenhower 3-2, TEAM 1-(-2); Athens — Joey Moore 18-79 TD, Nate Trainer 1-(-1), Corbin Stalder 1-(-1)
Jackson — Jared Icenhower 6-8-0-110 TD; Athens — Joey Moore 16-27-0-259 3 TDs
Jackson — Treylan Davis 1-48, Tristan Prater 2-38, Jayden Spires 2-12 TD, Garrett Daily 1-12; Athens — Nate Trainer 7-169 2 TDs, Peyton Gail 4-40 TD, Brayden Markins 2-16, Reece Wallace 2-14, Braeden Halbert 1-20