Not to put too fine a point on one game, but Arab’s heart-thumping 28-27 win over Southside-Gadsden last Friday night featured several significant developments.
For starters, Arab won a Class 6A, Region 7 game. A lot of people scoffed at the notion when the new alignments were announced late last year, but Knights coach Lee Ozmint promised his team would compete, and it has.
Arab (2-3 overall) is just 1-2 in region play but the games have been relatively close – and don’t forget Arab lost its starting quarterback in preseason practice, then his designated backup during the season-opening win at 7A Albertville.
That means Arab ultimately had to turn to a sophomore with zero varsity experience to run the show. But more on Aidan Cox later.
Arab senior running back Mathew Turnage had perhaps his best game ever as a Knight. At least Ozmint thinks so, and that’s saying something considering the big games he’s had, especially the last two seasons.
Turnage rushed for 180 yards on 30 carries and scored four touchdowns against Southside, one coming on a nifty pass reception. Turnage may have had games with more yardage, but his impact on this game was as great as in any game before.
“He showed up tonight,” said a happy Arab fan as Ozmint hugged Turnage on the field, after the game.
“He sure did,” Ozmint replied. “He played to win and got the important yards and the big plays (including a first-down run in the final minute that sealed).
“When he got holes to run through, he did. And when he didn’t have holes, he made them himself.
“He played probably the game of his life tonight.”
He needed to, and several others did, too. It didn’t go unnoticed.
“We called them out tonight and they responded,” Ozmint said, so happy was he he didn’t mind when the entire team sprinted back on the field and chased and tackled him.
If that was’t enough, the Arab cheerleaders did the same thing moments later. Ozmint never stopped smiling. He soaked up all the school spirit, which he credited for helping the Knights hold on.
“I pulled a hammy, Sammi,” Ozmint yelled to trainer Sammi Kirkl. “Bring the cart.”
The win also was special to Ozmint personally. Until Friday night, he’d never won a 6A game as a head coach. His previous stop (as a head coach) was at 3A Glencoe.
“They’re like powdered donuts,” he said after the game. “As soon as you eat one, you want another one.”
He and his team will have that chance in two weeks, when Pell City comes to town for Arab’s Homecoming. Before that, Arab has a game at Brewer this coming Friday.
The Knights lost a heartbreaker last season, also at Brewer, that likely cost them a spot in the playoffs. Brewer remained at 5A in the realignment, but the two rivals wanted to keep playing one another, largely because it’s an easy drive for both fan bases.
In order to fit in Marshall County rivals Albertville, Guntersville and Albertville on its schedule as well, Arab had to play Brewer on the road for a second straight season.
That might not matter this time as Brewer is having an atypical down season under head coach Geoff Walters. The Patriots, with just four seniors, have been outmatched even at 5A so far, going 0-5 while being outscored 220-47.
The last two losses have been shutouts.
Against Southside, Turnage scored on first-half runs of 1, 10 and 23 yards, then in the third quarter hauled in a perfectly executed screen pass by Cox on fourth-and-13 from the 29 to score what proved to be the winning TD.
Turnage got the credit for the TD but Cox played his part in the play, too. The ever-improving sophomore, showing the patience and poise of a seasoned veteran, waited and waited and waited for the Southside rush before making the toss to Turnage, who by then was very wide open and had a clear path to the end zone.
That put Arab ahead 28-13 but Southside made a furious late rally, scoring two touchdowns in the fourth quarter to make it 28-27 with 1:48 to play. Southside opted to go for two and the possible win, but a strong rush by Jonah Humphries and Christian Eaton caused Southside QB Michael Rich Jr. to overthrow his intended receiver on the play.
Arab was able to run out the clock when Turnage ran for 16 yards and a first down on a second-and-eight play with 1:33 left.
Ozmint said afterward he had a new hero: Southside first-year head coach Gary Nelson, whose team is now 3-2.
“I love that guy,” Ozmint said. “I fell in love with that coach tonight, because he played to win.
“You have to have great respect for that.”
Cox was 11-of-15 passing for 184 with one TD and one interception. His top receivers, in addition to Turnage, were Spencer Strickland, with three catches for 51 yards; John Wesson Johnson, with five receptions for 47 yards; and Brody McCain, who had one catch for 50 yards.
John Brady Bowman also had one catch, for 7 yards.
• The Arab JV team won Monday at DAR, 8-0. The JV Knights are now 4-0 and have outscored their opponents 72-14.
The teams played to a scoreless first half before J.R. Young scored on a 25-yard run with 44.8 seconds left in the third quarter. Young also ran in the two-point conversion to make it 8-0.
In the fourth quarter, Caleb Dyson and Logan Silva forced a fumble that was recovered by Gabe Norton at midfield to effectively seal the win and shutout.