Birmingham, Ala.--It had been 20 long years for Athens but Friday night the Eagles finally broke through as a 10-7 victory over Eufaula propelled them to the Class 5A State Championship at Legion Field. With quarterback Rob Ezell running the show and making big plays Athens made a three-point halftime lead stand up on the way to the win.
Ezell finished the night 15 of 22 for 181 yards through the air and rushed for an additional 36 yards on the ground to earn MVP honors. Five different Athens receivers caught passes with Jacquez Pride the leader with four catches for 44 yards. For Eufaula Jerrell Jernigan led the way with 20 carries for 83 yards and also completed five of 11 passes for 100 yards. Junior tailback Chris Williams ran the ball seven times for 104 yards.
The first half was a battle of quarterbacks as Jernigan and Ezell swapped big plays with Ezell coming up with one more to give his team the lead at the break. The Eagles were the first team to get on the board thanks to several big plays by Ezell both throwing and running the football. Following a Jernigan interception on Eufaula's first offensive play, Athens went to work behind Ezell.
Starting on their own 26 Athens held the ball for almost five minutes on a 10-play drive that ended with a three-yard touchdown run by Karlos Jones. On the drive Ezell handled the ball on seven of the 10 plays and completed five of six passes for 60 yards. The big play on the drive came on third and seven from the Eufaula 18 when Ezell hit Ferrel Williams for 15 yards.
An attempted onside kick by Athens gave Eufaula good field position to begin its second drive and the Tigers responded with a solid drive. Jernigan came through with the drive's biggest play on third and 13 from the Athens 39. Taking the snap in the shotgun, Jernigan ran a quarterback draw and broke several tackles before gaining 17 yards and a first down. The drive stalled on the Athens 17 and a Clayton Slade field goal attempt was wide left to keep Athens up 7-0.
Quarterback Jerrell Jernigan put forth a valiant effort after spraining an ankle early in the contest.
Two short possessions later and Athens was on the move again. Starting from their own 28-yard line the Eagles used 11 plays to get deep into Eufaula territory. A six-yard Ezell rush gave Athens a first down on the Eufaula 14 and on first down Ezell's pass to Pride moved the ball down to the six. Three plays later and it was Eufaula's football as the Tigers held Athens on a fourth and two from the six to turn the ball over.
Eufaula then went on the move on a 12-play drive that ended in a touchdown. Jernigan was the star of the drive along with talented junior Courtney Upshaw. The two connected on a 31-yard play that brought Eufaula off its own goal line and gave them field position. Later in the drive Jernigan completed a 29-yard gainer to Devin Crews that took the Tigers down inside the Athens 10. Two Xavier Crews runs later and Eufaula had tied the game at seven with just over one minute remaining in the first half.
That would be enough time for Athens and Ezell to make the play of the game. Starting from their own 43-yard line the Eagles moved to the 38 on completions to Pride and Vince Azzarello and with just seconds remaining in the half Ezell hit Dewon Tisdale for a 32-yard gain down to the six. On the last play of the half Matt Jackson was good from 23 yards with what would prove to be the game winner for Athens.
The second half was a defensive struggle worth of a championship game. Eufaula opened the half at its own 38 and moved the ball to the Athens 42 where the Eagles faced a fourth and six. Deciding to roll the dice Eufaula faked the punt with Terrance Thomas running for eight yards and a first down. However the drive would stall at the Athens 33 when a Jernigan pass fell incomplete.
That would be the story of the half for Jernigan and Eufaula as they got just close enough only to come up short. Never was that more evident that on the game's final drive. After holding Athens scoreless Eufaula got the ball back inside its own 10-yard line with 6:38 remaining on the clock looking to make history. It appeared that would be the case as a desperation third down throw by Jernigan out of his own end zone hit Chris Wilson for a big 28-yard gain to send the Tigers on their way.
It was just the first of a number of big plays on the drive as Jernigan and the Tigers chipped away at a stingy Athens defense. The methodical option offense ground out yardage as Eufaula moved to the Eagle 49 where they faced a huge fourth and five. That would be Jernigan time as he scrambled for six yards and a big first down to keep the drive and dream alive for Eufaula.
Another Jernigan run for nine yards moved Eufaula to the 36-yard line but two attempted runs netted nothing and ran off valuable time for the Tigers as by the time they got the first down only seconds remained in the contest. It was just enough time for Jernigan to hit George McCullough for a seven-yard gain on the sidelines and to throw a final incompletion. That brought on McCullough to attempt the game tying field goal. After a timeout by Athens the kicker missed short and right to give Athens the victory. Despite holding the ball for 17 minutes and 59 seconds in the second half Eufaula was unable to come up with the play when it was needed most.