As excruciating as last Friday night’s 35-34 loss to Springville was for Arab football fans, the hours after the game were almost as bad.
Arab fans left Tiger Stadium extremely disappointed, comforted only by the fact that the Knights would still be in the playoffs two weeks later. The only real damage done by the loss was that Arab would now draw Class 6A, Region 6 top seed Pinson Valley, rather than No. 2 seed Clay-Chalkville in the first round.
But wait. An hour or so after the game, a Region 7 standings circulated on social media that indicated Springville – by virtue of its win over Arab – was actually the fourth place team in the region. After all, Arab and Springville both finished region play with 2-4 records, and Springville won head-to-head.
A good many Arab fans went to sleep Friday night thinking Arab not only lost a critical region game but also missed out on the playoffs.
But, alas, the official brackets released by the AHSAA confirmed what head coach Lee Ozmint had said last Friday morning on Fun 92.7’s Coaches Breakfast Show: Arab is the official No. 4 team in Region 7.
Arab is in the playoffs. The first-round game is set for Friday, Nov. 6, at Pinson Valley (7-2, 6-0 Region 6). Clay-Chalkville currently has a better overall record (8-1) but lost at home to Pinson Valley, 27-10, on Oct. 16.
Most playoff spots are decided and many teams are playing non-region rivalry games this week. Arab plays host to Marshall County rival Boaz in a game that last week was moved up a day to today but on Tuesday was moved back to Friday because of the threat of inclement weather.
Brindlee Mountain’s Homecoming game, against county rival DAR, is set for Friday night, as is the state’s oldest rivalry game, Albertville at Guntersville. The Wildcats and Aggies have played each other 105 times, with Guntersville leading the series 52-47-6.
Ozmint himself never heard anything different about the playoff scenario. He learned sometime last week that – because of Scottsboro being forced to forfeit to Pell City – Arab was locked into at least fourth place.
Had Arab defeated Springville, Arab would have been the No. 3 seed, ahead of Southside-Gadsden, which completed its region schedule on Oct. 16. Both teams would’ve finished 3-3, but Arab owned the head-to-head tiebreaker.
However, with the loss, Arab dropped into a three-way tie with Springville and Pell City, all at 2-4. Because three teams tied and not two, head-to-head could not be a determining factor. The next tiebreaker was the tying teams’ record against the top teams in the region.
None of the three teams beat No. 1 Oxford or No. 2 Fort Payne, but Arab had a win against No. 3 Southside and Springville and Pell City did not.
That put Arab in the playoffs but didn’t make Friday’s loss any easier to take for Ozmint and his staff.
“We knew that going in, that we were playing for the third or fourth (spot),” Ozmint said. “That’s probably why we played so flat.”
Ozmint was particularly disturbed by the defense’s inability to consistently tackle Springville QB Pearson Baldwin, who used his 6-foot-1, 215-pound frame to great advantage on plenty of running and passing plays.
“We kept (the likely) Mr. Football (Oxford all-star quarterback Trey Higgins) contained so well two weeks before, and this kid (Baldwin) just runs right through us,” Ozmint said. “We played flat on defense and we just can’t afford to do that.
“And that’s my fault. I had them overconfident.”
The result against Springville was highly disappointing, especially considering the difference came about because of a missed extra-point attempt by the normally ultra-reliable Gavin Currier after Arab scored the go-ahead touchdown with 4:49 left in the game.
Springville, whose kicker also missed a PAT earlier in the game, scored the tying TD with 1:16 left, and then converted the extra point for the lead and the win.
While the outcome left a lot to be desired for the Arab side, there were also plenty of positives.
Senior running back Mathew Turnage contined his bid for all-star recognition, rushing for 182 yards on 26 carries and scoring three touchdowns.
It was Turnage who scored the go-ahead TD late for the Knights on a dazzling 39-yard run. He broke free after initially being stopped near the line-of-scrimmage and bolted down the left (vistors’s) sideline and then stumbled a few yards into the end zone after a shoestring tackle by a Springville defender.
Also, on a night when his twin brother made his 2020 debut, wide receiver John Wesson Johnson had his best night catching the ball as a high school player. Johnson had seven receptions for 95 yards and a touchdown that put the Knights on the scoreboard first.
After Springville started the game with a successful onsides kick, the Arab defense held and the Knights took over in good field position near midfield. After a long Turnage run moved the ball to the Springville 32, Wes Johnson took an inside screen from QB Aidan Cox in the center of the field and broke free down the left (visitor’s) sideline and took it the distance. Arab led 7-0 with 9:08 left in the opening quarter.
Springville responded when Baldwin scored on a quarterback keeper on the next drive, and the score was 7-7 with 5:28 left in the first quarter.
Both defenses held on the subsequent possessons, then Turnage gave up a rare fumble that Springville recovered at the Arab 44.
Springville ultimately scored on a 4-yard run by Baldwin with 9:58 to play in the second quarter.
On Arab’s next possession, the aforementioned other Johnson twin, James Ed, made his first appearance of the season. The projected starter at quarterback before a preseason injury, Johnson ran the ball twice, for 5 and 2 yards, the latter giving the Knights a first down. Then Cox returned and along with Ed Johnson, the pair combined to lead Arab on a 17-play drive that culminated with a Turnage 5-yard scoring run.
It was 14-14 with 3:44 left in the second quarter and that’s the way it stayed until halftime.
Springville broke the tie when Baldwin broke mulitple tackles to score yet another TD with 10:04 left in the third quarter. But Springville missed the extra point try and led just 20-14.
A long kick return by Wes Johnson put Arab back in business at the Springville 42. Six plays later – and after Turnage converted a fourth-and-two on a 5-yard run on a straight toss sweep – Cox his Spencer Strickland with a well-aimed 21-yard pass in the corner of the end zone.
Arab led 21-20. It stayed that way until Ed Johnson led a Knights’ drive that started in the third quarter at midfield and ended with another Turnage TD run, this time from 3 yards out, with 10:31 left.
Johnson had three nifty runs to help keep the drive alive, and he also hit his brother with passes of 18 and 5 yards.
Arab led 28-20 but Baldwin again confounded the Arab defense, eventually scoring on a 34-yard scramble with 8:10 remaining. Then it got worse for the Knights.
The Tigers were penalized 15 yards on a dead-ball personal foul call after the TD play, and Arab for obvious reasons took the penalty for the conversion attempt rather that the ensuing kickoff. But Baldwin again foiled the Knights’ plans, dodging tacklers left and right on an 18-yard run to tie the game 28-28, setting up the fourth-quarter theatrics that saw Springville pull out the one-point win.
Springville’s final TD, with 1:16 left, came on a third-and-one pass from Baldwin to 6-3, 250-pound Ben Bianchi, who went up for the ball and caught it as he was falling into the end zone for a 16-yard reception.
Despite the loss, Ozmint saw good things from his new quarterback tandem.
“It was just good to see Ed out there,” Ozmint said. “He ran the ball well and he does add a dimension to our offense.
“He’s a leader on this team and you could see the players get excited when he came into the game. He’s a natural.”
Cox and Ed Johnson both came in and out, occasionally on the same drive, and the pair seemed to handle the situation smoothly.
Cox was 8-for-17 passing for 101 yards and two touchdowns. For the season, Cox is 76-for-132 for 874 yards, seven touchdowns and five interceptions.
Ed Johnson was 4-for-4 passing for 48 yards and he also had 26 yards rushing on six attempts.
Strickland had three catches for 38 yards and the touchdown from Cox.
Turnage continued to pile up rushing yardage. He now has 1,196 yards and 14 touchdowns on 193 carries.