BY JAMES SWIFT
Don’t let the final 31-6 score fool you — Cartersville’s win over Woodland on Oct. 21 was more hard-fought than it may appear.
Despite being a heavy favorite heading into the contest, Cartersville High Head Football Coach Conor Foster said he wasn’t surprised that the Wildcats kept the regional contest competitive.
“They’ve gotten better every week and we had a couple of turnovers,” he said. “And when you don’t take care of the football and you give your opponents’ extra possessions and allow them to stay in the game, it creates some momentum on their part.”
Cartersville received the ball to open the game.
The drive ended in a turnover, as Purple Hurricanes’ quarterback Paul Gamble was intercepted by Wildcats’ cornerback Jaeden Smith, who went down at the Woodland 32-yard line.
Chase Carson was under center for Woodland. On third and eight, he was bottled up on a quarterback keeper for a one-yard loss.
The Wildcats opted to punt the ball away on fourth down.
Nate Russell handled quarterbacking duties on the Purple Hurricanes’ next offensive possession. Woodland’s defense stood tall, however, and Cartersville had to punt.
Woodland would start the team’s next possession around their own 1-yard line.
With about four minutes left in the first quarter, Cartersville got on the scoreboard first after recording a safety.
Cartersville went up 2-0 and the Purple Hurricanes took over offensive possession near the team’s own 30-yard line.
The Hurricanes relied on the legwork of running back Malachi Jeffries to march downfield. The drive ended with Jeffries collecting a four-yard rushing score.
Russell tagged Jaylen Scott on a successful two-point conversion pass to make it 10-0, Cartersville, with about two minutes left in the quarter.
Woodland’s Isaiah Livsey had a big return on the kick, giving the Wildcats possession around midfield to begin the team’s next drive.
“I think defensively, we played extremely well, that’s probably the most execution we’ve had all season,” said Woodland High Head Football Coach Brandon Haywood. “And our defense has been our backbone, primarily, all season. And they came out with a great game plan with a lot of energy, and we played with a lot of emotion — and that’s what I was looking for.”
Braylon Inman intercepted a Wildcats’ pass and took the picked off pigskin all the way back to the Woodland 15.
On the very next play, Khristian Lando scored a rushing touchdown. Following the successful PAT, Cartersville went up 17-0 with just seconds remaining in the first.
On the subsequent kickoff, Livsey rattled off an electrifying 99-yard touchdown run. The extra point attempt, however, missed the mark and the score stood at 17-6, Cartersville.
“I’m so proud of that kid,” Haywood said. “He’s probably battling a lot emotionally, mentally, because as a sophomore you’re being put in a really tough spot by being asked to do a lot for us, offensively, defensively, special teams-wise, every given Friday.”
Woodland went for an onside kick, but Cartersville hopped on the live ball around midfield.
The drive ended with Russell being intercepted by Wildcats’ free safety Brayden Pope.
Carson was then intercepted by Canes’ defender Richard Houston on a third and 10 throw. Cartersville’s offense took over around midfield.
Jeffries carried the rock inside the Wildcats’ 30.
On third and 11 at the Woodland 29, the Wildcats’ defense made a big stop.
Ryan Johnson stepped onto the field for a 47-yard field goal attempt. It was no good.
On third and one, Carson was stopped for a loss. The Wildcats opted to punt the ball away.
The score stood at 17-6, Cartersville, as the second quarter came to an end.
“I think defensively, we played outstanding the entire game,” Foster said. “We were able to create a couple of turnovers and control the line of scrimmage.”
Against a high-powered offense like Cartersville, Haywood said that every detail matters.
“They have everything from a personnel standpoint, from the offensive line to running backs to quarterbacks to receivers on the perimeter,” Haywood said. “So it’s very important that our kids are really dialed in, that our mistakes are limited and we execute at a very high level.”
Woodland had possession to begin the second half.
On third and five, the Wildcats were hit with a delay of game penalty. Following an incomplete pass, Woodland opted to punt.
Johnson came out for a roughly 40-yard field goal attempt on the Purple Hurricanes’ next offensive possession — only for Rakaylin Glover to block the kick. Carson hopped on the ball and, following a penalty against the Canes, Woodland got possession around the team’s own 37.
The Wildcats couldn’t capitalize on the offensive opportunity, however, and Cartersville once again regained possession of the pigskin.
With about a minute and a half left in the quarter, Lando scored a rushing touchdown to make it 24-6, Cartersville.
“We just found a couple of formations that we were able to feel a little better about,” Foster said. “And we stayed patient and stayed with those formations and sets and moved the ball down the field. And we were able to punch it in a few times.”
Woodland punted away the ball after the team’s offense stalled out on the next offensive possession.
Following a personal foul penalty, the Purple Hurricanes began their next drive deep in their own territory.
Cartersville couldn’t score on the possession, and Woodland had another chance to put points on the scoreboard.
The Wildcats didn’t have the ball for long. Romo Pace intercepted a pass and Cartersville’s offense went back to work around the Woodland 35.
Lando recorded his third rushing touchdown of the contest — this one, an 11-yard trip to the end zone.
He finished the game with 95 rushing yards on 11 carries, according to the unofficial stats from MaxPreps.
“I thought he played really well on both sides of the ball,” Foster said. “He provided some leadership and some energy, so we’re really thankful for him stepping up and being a big player.”
The extra point kick was good. Cartersville extended their lead to 31-6, with less than six minutes left in the fourth.
And that would hold as the final score.
Per MaxPreps, Cartersville outproduced Woodland 256 rushing yards to 39 rushing yards.
Jeffries finished the game with 141 yards and one touchdown on 24 carries.
Neither team produced much through the air, with Cartersville concluding the contest with 57 passing yards and Woodland finishing the game with just five passing yards.
With the win, Cartersville improves to 8-1 overall and 3-1 in-region, while Woodland falls to 1-8 overall and 0-4 in-region.
Cartersville’s already a lock for the playoffs, but Foster said his team isn’t overlooking their final regular season contest next week.
“We haven’t talked about that, we just talk about going 1-0,” he said.
The Purple Hurricanes will travel to Dalton (5-4 overall, 3-1 in region) on Oct. 28.
“Taking care of the football is a big one, and hopefully, we’ll get some guys back,” Foster said. “We’ve just got to continue to practice with a great sense of urgency and execute at a high level.”
That same evening the Wildcats will travel to Hiram (4-5 overall, 1-3 in region) for the team’s final game of the season.
A victory to close out the year, Haywood said, would be a huge morale booster for the Wildcats.
“I say it all the time, I don’t like moral victories,” Haywood said. “This is a process, you must love the process … since Dalton, we have been a new team because we finally got kids where it clicked.”
Heading into next season, Haywood said addressing depth is one of his top priorities.
“Very few of us see the progress that is being made,” Haywood said. “It’s just continuing to dial in and let our kids try to encourage other kids to help us out in the hallway … we’ve got roughly about 1,500 students here. We just need more participation to really get this thing rocking and rolling.”