Athens matched up against Jackson on Friday for the first time since 2013, but the result was much different than their last meeting, which ended in a 49-0 Bulldogs victory.
The Bulldogs couldn’t overcome first half struggles Friday at R. Basil Rutter Field and fell 31-26 to the Ironmen, dropping their season record to 0-2.
Jackson showed many spread sets on tape when coach Nathan White prepared the Bulldogs, but the Ironmen changed their look for Friday, and that helped them control the majority of the first half with their ground-and-pound running game.
White recognized the effectiveness of this game plan: “The toughest part for us with an offense like that is we don’t get as many series with our offense...so we really had to make it count.”
The Bulldogs’ offense worked exclusively out of an empty 3x2 set in the second half. The formation maximized the number of weapons on the field and gave quarterback Joey Moore the option to run the ball with a receiver in motion or work out of the shotgun.
Athens’ first drive of the second half featured a fast tempo, no-huddle look. Completions to Nate Trainer and Braeden Halbert placed the Bulldogs in their best position to score all night. From the Jackson 14-yard line, Moore kept the ball on what looked to be a designed keeper and maneuvered his way through the trenches before trucking over two Ironmen defenders as he dove into the end zone to cut the deficit to 13.
Following another Jackson touchdown, the Bulldogs took over at their own 44-yard line.
With less than thirty seconds remaining in the third quarter Moore saw speedy junior receiver Peyton Gail lined up against a stockier Jackson defender and lobbed pass over the Ironmen defense to Gail for a 31-yard touchdown.
At the end of the third quarter Jackson still held a commanding 25-12 lead.
A personal foul penalty on Jackson made a potential third-and-two a much more daunting third-and-17. The Bulldog defense forced Jackson to punt.
The Ironmen punt was shanked, however, and allowed Athens to take over at its 40-yard line with just under eight minutes remaining.
Moore worked some magic to secure a clutch first down to get into Ironmen territory and the ensuing play ended up being the biggest of the night for the Bulldogs.
The junior quarterback sent a deep ball to Trainer for a 49-yard touchdown. Now, the Bulldogs were down six with about seven minutes remaining.
Athens forced a three-and-out on the next Jackson drive and sent it fans into a frenzy. There was finally some hope, and a “Let’s go, O!” chant came from the student section as Moore and the offense took over at its 36-yard line.
The excitement was short lived however, as Athens only advanced two yards in three plays and took a timeout to decide what to do on fourth down.
White kept the offense on the field on 4th-and-8 from its 38-yard line, and Moore sent a deep ball to Halbert that landed out of bounds with 3:53 remaining.
That was the last chance the Bulldogs had to win the game. Their fate was sealed when Jackson scored a touchdown with a minute remaining. Moore found Trainer for a touchdown with 38 seconds remaining to make it 31-26 Jackson, but it was too late, and Athens couldn’t recover the onside kick.
White had nothing but praise for the Bulldogs after their second consecutive loss.
“This is my fifteenth year coaching and I’ve never been so proud of a group of kids,” White said. Obviously, we want to win and it hurts just as bad that we lost but I’m so proud of their effort.”
Moore finished 16-of-28 for 256 yards and three touchdowns. He was also Athens’ leading rusher with 18 attempts for 66 yards.
Trainer had seven receptions for 168 yards and two touchdowns. Moore and Trainer were the only two Bulldogs to rush for positive yards on Friday night.
The Bulldogs (0-2) will head to Parkersburg , West Virginia, to face the Parkersburg South Patriots (2-0) on Friday night.