Mitchell Duquette saw an opening. Perhaps just as important, he picked up a sly signal from his head coach.
The result was a blocked punt in the third quarter that was the turning point in Arab’s 20-7 win at Fort Payne last Friday night in the 6A, Region 7 opener for both teams. Arab continues region play Friday night against Scottsboro.
With the Wildcats facing a fourth-and-21 inside their own 30 with about four minutes to go in the third period, all-world place-kicker – and highly respectable punter – Alex McPherson dropped back to punt.
Duquette was in the middle of the field and he’d been noting that Fort Payne’s up-backs – the blockers – were committing to the edge rushers on previous punt.
Then he heard head coach Lee Ozmint holler at him before the snap.
“I wasn’t even supposed to blitz (on the rush),” Duquette would say later. “But I noticed the A-gap was wide open and then Coach Ozmint called my name and then signaled to me (with his hands) and I took that to mean go for it.”
The rush was on McPherson and before he could punt the ball, he dropped it. That’s all Duquette needed. He nearly blocked the punt with his knees.
“I was going to hit him at first, then I tried to catch it,” Duquette said. “Luckily for me, he dropped the ball.”
Fort Payne got the blocked punt and advanced it up field but not nearly enough for a first down.
With the score tied 7-7, Arab took over at the Fort Payne 33. Three plays later, Drake Franklin ran it in from the 15 to give the Knights the lead with 3:19 left in the quarter.
A 13-yard Franklin run on the previous play set up the Knights with a first down at the 15. Franklin finished as Arab’s leading rusher with 76 yards on 11 carries after being held to 8 yards the previous week against Guntersville.
Indeed, Arab’s entire offense was much more diverse than in the loss to Guntersville, when quarterback James Ed Johnson accounted for most of the Knights’ 293 total yards and all three of their touchdowns.
Against Fort Payne, Ed Johnson again put up big numbers – 213 yards passing with two scores – but the ball distribution was much greater.
“Ed threw the ball a bit better,” said offensive coordinator Chad Hudson, who added he’s still not pleased with the offense.
“But I 100 percent like the direction we’re heading in,” he said.
Ed Johnson ran for 32 yards and Hayden O’Reilly ran for 9 on two carries, but as Hudson noted, it was in the passing game where the Knights’ offense showed their biggest improvement.
Brody McCain had four receptions for 77 yards, and John Wesson Johnson had three catches for 53 yards and the clinching TD in the waning seconds of the game.
Spencer Strickland had five catches for 53 yards and scored the Knights’ first TD on a 23-yard pass with 10:53 left in the second quarter. That tied it at 7-7 after the Wildcats (0-3) struck first with a Jake Barnes 35-yard TD pass to Ricardo Adame in the opening quarter.
Barnes completed 9-of-16 for 91 yards and Alex Akins ran for 63 yards on 20 carries, though the clear star for Fort Payne was McPherson, who averaged 40.9 yards on five punts, including one for 59 yards that flipped the field.
He also boomed two kickoffs off the goal posts in the back of the end zone.
Arab’s offense was productive – if not clean – despite missing senior leader Brock Johnson on the offensive line. He missed the game because of illness.
The game was plagued by penalties on both sides, and many of them came at inopportune times for both teams.
“We kept our composure out there,” Ozmint said. “We faced a lot of adversity on the field.
“Our offensive line has got to do a better job getting blocks and staying on blocks. We’ve got to be more consistent.”
Ozmint was pleased with Ed Johnson and all the outside receivers, including also O”Reilly, who had one catch for 20 yards while also playing a key role in the secondary.
Ozming also praised the defensive front.
On defense, Duquette was credited with 7.5 tackles, and John Ray Wilks had 5.5. Patrick Lawler had four tackles and Jonah Humphries had 3.5, including 1.5 for losses.
Jacob Cobb also had 3.5 tackles and Wes Johnson had 2.5 with one tackle for loss.
Jonathan Pugh and Josh Roe also had 2.5 tackles each.