There was no shortage of gratifying moments at Memorial Stadium on Friday as the Jefferson High football team went into overtime three times against Fitzgerald High School. The extended ball game was worth it as the Dragons won 53-51.
Junior running back Tristen Jackson made the game-saving touchdown grab to tie the game at 51-all in the third overtime. It would only be fitting to go for a 2-point conversion and, in a moment where many probably had their eyes closed, Jackson came through yet again for the Dragons by completing the conversion.
“I was happy that Bryant [Shirreffs] threw the ball to me. I just wanted to catch it and not drop it. Initially [on the 2-point conversion], it was supposed to go to our tight end but they covered him with three people and I was open in the flats,” said Jackson.
It was a night full of emotional highs and lows; everything from injuries, bad calls, penalties, turnovers and touchdowns kept the fans — and both teams — on their toes.
The Purple Hurricanes had impeccable statistics that would make any defensive coordinator cringe. They racked up 3,800 rushing yards and just 48 pass attempts (not including the game against Jefferson). If that isn’t enough, they also had nine consecutive double-digit win seasons.
Fitzgerald was feeling lucky in its opening drive and went for an onside kick but their trickery didn’t fool the Dragons. Jefferson took over on the 44-yard line. After a big burst through the FHS defense, Shirreffs finished the job on his own from 20 yards out. Chandler Schlutow added the extra kick to take a 7-0 lead.
On third and five, the Purple Hurricanes were looking for a big boost of momentum and went on an 18-yard run for a fresh set of downs. Fitzgerald reached pay dirt from four yards out but a holding penalty erased the score. The Canes gained nine yards on their next play and on their next attempt to reach the end zone, they faced another setback due to a false start penalty. However, the Purple Hurricanes were in field goal position and took advantage of that by adding three to the board.
Jefferson came out firing back on all cylinders. Tristen Jackson fled through the Fitzgerald defense followed by a nice gain by Donnie Hatfield. Jefferson got bit by the penalty bug near its own end zone; however, the Dragons delivered arguably its biggest play of the year. Shirreffs made a few defenders chase him around before he dumped the ball off to Jackson for a 36-yard completion.
Jefferson ran the ball right down the throats of the Purple Hurricanes and finished the drive with a touchdown pass from Shirreffs to Hatfield. The Dragons lead 14-3 in the first quarter.
FHS didn’t waste anytime getting back to business. They may be known for running the ball but they didn’t pass up the opportunity to go airborne. It took the Canes just four plays to cut their deficit to four.
Jefferson responded with big runs by Hatfield and Shirreffs but the star QB was stuffed on fourth and two. Fitzgerald continued to be powerful on the ground but its running game finally came to a screeching halt when an avalanche of Jefferson defenders closed in on the rushing attack.
The Dragons took over at the 45 and Williams torched a slew of Purple Hurricanes for a 6-yard scamper inside the pylon. Jefferson went into halftime with a 21-10 lead.
The Purple Hurricanes definitely drank their Gatorade at the break. They came out with a long punt return, but Jefferson was able to breathe a little easier after a holding penalty was called, which took the wind right out of the Purple Hurricanes.
On the ensuing punt, the Dragons made a crucial error after the ball hit a Dragons player. Fitzgerald recovered the live ball and the play certainly put the chances of Jefferson winning in jeopardy. The Purple Hurricanes were right near the red zone and took advantage of the field position. However, they failed on their 2-point conversion attempt.
With 3:33 left to play, Shirreffs went down with what looked to be a temporary injury. His younger brother, Evan Shirreffs took over under center but his fiery darts may have been too sharp for his receivers to catch. Jefferson had to rely on the foot on Schlutow and he drilled a 44-yard field goal to put Jefferson ahead by eight.
With seconds left in the third, Shirreffs was heavily pressured by the Fitzgerald defense but made a defender miss and aired a 44-yard pass to Dalton Hill, who displayed some fancy moves of his own while making the grab. The Dragons switched end zones at the top of the fourth but they didn’t switch up their swagger. Williams notched his second touchdown run of the night to put Jefferson up 31-16.
Soon after, the air was sucked out of the stadium when Schlutow went down on the ensuing kickoff and was carted off the field. From that point, it is safe to say the Dragons had Schlutow on their mind, and it showed as the defense gave up a long touchdown run.
“It was hard. We were thinking about him because he is important to us. I think we let our emotions get ahead of us. We weren’t focused on the game like we should have been but I think as the game progressed we got back into it and became more focused,” said Hannon Price.
Price registered 19 tackles, two tackles for loss on the night and was a big part of shutting down Fitzgerald’s running game.
Up 31-24, more drama ensued after a high snap by JHS which nearly gave up another touchdown but, Head Coach T. McFerrin called a time out prior to the bad snap. Yet, the Purple Hurricanes delivered a whirlwind of problems. They continued to utilize the running game and put up another impressive touchdown run.
Tied at 31 apiece, both teams struggled to reach the end zone. However, the Purple Hurricanes gained enough yards for a field goal attempt but their hopes of winning within the final seconds were brought down by Wesley Simonton who blocked the attempt.
“I ran straight up the middle. I timed it perfectly. It was a line drive and it probably would have gone in but it would have been really low because it was going really fast,” said Simonton.
“I think I was in shock more than anything. Any time you can get a big play, is something you will never forget,” said Simonton.
In overtime, Fitzgerald scored on a short touchdown run and Shirreffs answered with a 15-yard scamper of his own to pay dirt. The Purple Hurricanes failed on its 2-point conversion attempt while the Dragons missed the extra point attempt.
Both teams went on to score another touchdown and a 2-point conversion in the second period of OT.
Jefferson will host its fourth playoff game of the season against Greater Atlanta Christian on Dec 7 at 7:30 p.m. The Spartans are 10-3 on the year and defeated Early County 27-24 last Friday night.