Despite being up 13-0 midway through the second quarter, Dalton High School needed some sort of boost for an offense that had scored 14 points off of one big pass and a gift of a Ridgeland turnover.
The Catamounts — in their first contest with the entire offensive game plan resting on the shoulders of junior quarterback Payton Veraldi — put together perhaps their most impressive drive of the year on their way to a 28-0 win over last year’s Class 4A state runners-up in the Sub-region 7B-4A opener for both schools. And it was the defense that gave the offense the lift.
Ridgeland was threatening to cut into that Dalton lead with first-and-goal at the Catamounts’ 8-yard line. But the Dalton defense stiffened, and when Ridgeland running back Noah Cooper saw a hole and darted for the goal line, Eder Mora was there to meet him.
“We needed to make a big stop there, and we just wanted to keep them out of the end zone and give the ball back to the offense,” Mora said. “We want to be able to help them and put them in a good position whenever we can.”
Facing 98 yards isn’t exactly the best field position, but the Cats’ offense responded.
Using 14 plays with a variety of personnel, Dalton (3-2) pounded against the stacked defense of Ridgeland (1-4), which was focused on stopping Dalton’s run game. But with everyone in the stadium expecting running back Kelvis Rhodes to gash the Panthers, it was Veraldi who made the biggest plays.
Veraldi and sophomore Jase Chastain had shared the quarterbacking duties through the first four games of the season, but Chastain suffered a devastating leg injury last week against Cass and was sitting in a golf cart on the sidelines Friday night, six days removed from surgery to repair a broken tibia and fibula.
On Dalton’s big possession, Veraldi had runs of 3, 17 and 21 yards and tossed a 10-yard pass to Peter Sigmon as Dalton marched 98 yards and burned nearly six minutes off of the game clock.
“That is exactly what I asked of them,” Dalton coach Matt Land said of the drive, which ended with Mora’s 3-yard touchdown run. “Payton played well. We ran the entire offensive package, and even some of the things that we would normally call with Jase, Payton ran well.”
Veraldi ended the night with 100 yards and two touchdowns on 6 of 10 passing. He added 48 yards and a score on seven carries.
But beyond that one drive, Dalton’s offense did little as the defense was in control and responded to being put in bad situations from the opening kickoff.
Ridgeland stripped the ball away on Dalton’s return and gained possession at the 21, but the Panthers were stuffed on three straight plays and then had a procedure penalty. Ridgeland walked away with nothing after missing a 40-yard field goal. Dalton went three-and-out after that, but the defense gave the ball right back with Mora recovering a fumble at the Panthers’ 16.
For the night, the Catamounts held the Panthers to less than 100 yards of total offense.
Veraldi hit Sigmon on a 9-yard scoring pass after Mora’s fumble recovery, and taking over at midfield on another drive, Veraldi hit tight end Chase Westfall on a seam route. Westfall made one defender miss by spinning off of him and rambled 50 yards for the score. Dalton’s final touchdown came early in the third quarter and was set up by a 44-yard punt return by Tyler Noland that put Dalton at the Ridgeland 9.