TUNNEL HILL —
Only three seconds remained in Friday night’s high school football game between intracounty rivals Dalton and Northwest Whitfield.
As Catamounts kicker Kiko Rodriguez lined up for a 25-yard field goal, the majority of the over-capacity crowd inside Bruin Stadium desperately wanted him to miss.
They, along with the Bruins players, wanted overtime. They wanted the score to stay 28-28. They wanted the first win in the series since 2004.
“No pressure,” Rodriguez said.
With one confident motion, his kick ended the game 31-28 in Dalton’s favor, ended Northwest’s quest for an undefeated season, diminished the Bruins’ hopes of a Region 7-4A title and continued the Cats’ domination of their Sub-region 7B-4A rivals with a seventh straight victory in the series, which now leans 28-5 in Dalton’s favor.
The estimated 6,500 fans expressed opposite reactions. The Dalton side erupted. The Northwest fans went silent. To get there, the Cats (4-2, 2-0) drove 73 yards in 2:06, passing only once and running six times with a healthy dose of quarterback Payton Veraldi and running back Kelvis Rhodes — the latter rushing 23 times for 199 yards in the game.
Running the football, even when conventional wisdom thinks to pass, is just the way Dalton does things.
“That’s our two-minute offense. Can’t you tell?” Dalton coach Matt Land joked, at first. “Honestly, we wanted to try and set up a couple pass plays with the run. We ripped off two big run plays to get us comfortable.”
The Cats now sit alone in first place in the sub-region standings with Southeast Whitfield’s 35-20 loss to Ridgeland. Northwest (5-1, 1-1) is now looking at an extremely important game next week against the Panthers, who also are 1-1 in league standings.
The Bruins tied the game with 2:06 to play when quarterback Caleb Shiflett found wide receiver Dylan Joyce on an 18-yard touchdown.
It was one of two touchdown passes for Shiflett, who finished 11 of 19 for 156 yards.
Earlier in the quarter, Rhodes scored from 12 yards away with 8:32 to play to give Dalton its first lead of the game at 28-21. The possession continued after a roughing the kicker penalty on a 40-yard missed field goal from Rodriguez. Rhodes’ other score came on a 4-yard run to tie the game 21-21 with 4:10 left in the third quarter.
Northwest owned almost all of the first quarter. On the Bruins’ first offensive play, wide receiver Tevin McDaniel caught a screen pass from Shiflett for a 68-yard score with 7:47 on the clock. McDaniel broke four tackles and cut back across the field at around midfield.
Northwest’s next possession went 71 yards in 13 plays, and Jacob Webb’s 2-yard score with 1:04 on the clock was his 11th run on the drive and gave the Bruins a 14-0 lead.
Veraldi took the second play of Dalton’s next drive 55 yards on the last play of the opening quarter and he scored on a 2-yard sneak with 10:17 left in the second quarter. Eder Mora’s 4-yard run tied the game with 2:36 left before halftime, a drive set up by a 46-yard pass to wideout Peter Sigmon. Veraldi finished with 112 yards rushing on 16 carries and 73 yards on 5-of-7 passing.
“We were too pumped and bought into making this a little bigger than what it was, which was just another game,” Land said of the first quarter.
Northwest’s best chance to score in the second quarter was after a fourth-and-1 fake punt run by Clay Phillips for 17 yards. On the next play, with the ball at Dalton’s 25, cornerback Jordon McKinney intercepted a Shiflett pass in the end zone with 5:39 on the clock.
“Games between good teams always boil down to a couple plays,” Northwest coach Josh Robinson said. “Was that a big play? Yes. Also, penalties for them getting first downs and messing up on coverages (also was big).”
The Bruins opened the second half with an 11-play, 69-yard drive finished by Webb’s 1-yard scoring run with 8:13 on the clock. Webb finished with 31 carries for 151 yards.
“I’m proud of our team,” Webb said. “This is the first time playing a close game into the fourth quarter. ... We tried to get the job done and came up a little short, but it’s all right, though.”