After struggling to run the ball in an overtime loss to Pope a week ago, the Eagles excelled Friday against Wheeler.
A 12-yard touchdown pass from John Oliver to Ben Rowell with 46 seconds left to play in the game clinched Etowah a 31-27 victory over the unbeaten Wildcats in the teams’ Region 5AAAAAA opener at Eagle Stadium.
“This feels good. I’m so proud of our kids,” Etowah coach Dave Svehla said. “I challenged our kids because we were our own worst enemy in both of our losses. This time, we ran the ball well.”
Etowah (2-2, 1-0) rushed for 300 yards against a Wheeler defense that had given up just 19 points on the season and was known to wreak havoc at the line of scrimmage.
Brandon Engle led the Eagles’ backfield with 156 yards on 10 carries, and he was 2 yards away from scoring two touchdowns when a 79-yard run and a 52-yard run were both stopped at the Wheeler 1-yard line.
Oliver tacked on 78 more yards on 16 carries for the Eagles. Stanlee Logue and Raishod Devezin both combined for 65 yards, all coming in the second half.
“Wheeler is very aggressive (inside), and we felt like we needed to run on the edge,” Svehla said. “Our running backs did a good job making safeties miss and getting yards after contact.”
It did take Etowah a little while to get going. Wheeler (3-1, 0-1) had a 13-3 lead midway through the second quarter until the Eagles recovered a muffed punt on the Wheeler 35. Two plays later, Oliver went around the right edge and sprinted down the right sideline for a 35-yard touchdown run.
Both of those plays put Etowah right back into the game and its running game on track.
“That was a big play,” Wheeler coach Mike Collins said. “We also had trouble with field position (in the first half) and kept giving (Etowah) short fields. I think that was the difference in the ballgame.”
Etowah got a short field on its next drive after forcing Wheeler to punt and are more rushing yards after starting from its own 50. The drive ended with a 6-yard touchdown pass from Oliver to Matthew Bowling, giving Etowah its first lead of the game at 17-13 with a minute left in the first half.
The Eagles increased their lead late in the third quarter when Engle’s 52-yard scamper set up a 1-yard quarterback sneak by Oliver into the end zone.
The 11-point Etowah lead made Wheeler play more with sense of urgency, and the Wildcats turned up their running game. Kahlem Looney, who rushed for 150 yards on 31 carries, scored two unanswered touchdowns — the second coming on fourth and goal at the 1 when he dove over the pile to give Wheeler a 27-24 lead.
With 3 minutes remaining in the game, Etowah drove the length of the field to win the game.
Its first two plays netted 26 yards. A Wheeler penalty gave Etowah another fresh set of downs, and an 8-yard burst by Devezin on third-and-2 set up the game-winning touchdown pass from Oliver to Rowell.
The game ended when Staley attempted a Hail Mary pass on fourth down that fell incomplete.