Last year’s Alabama Christian-St. James matchup generated 88 points and 921 yards.
After a sluggish start, the two region rivals reprised their roles, this time at ACA’s Wade Norton Black Field on Friday night.
“We came out in the second half and started matching point for point,” St. James coach Jimmy Perry said, “and we said we needed one defensive stop and two (consecutive) offensive scores and that would do it.”
Trojan senior Bradley Thomas supplied the defensive stop, snatching a deflected pass out of the air to stop the ACA offense and put the St. James’ offense back on the field, where KJ Jackson scored his second touchdown of the night to seal a 35-21 win over the Eagles in a 4A Region 2 opener.
“You know when it’s time to make a play as a senior,” Thomas said. “Knowing what happened last year, we can’t let that happen again.”
Last year, ACA won 47-41 in overtime at Carlisle Field, then went on to complete an undefeated run through seven region games while St. James finished 6-1 in region play. This year, both teams have six remaining region games but there is no questioning the magnitude of Friday’s win.
“It’s really big,” Thomas said. “We just heard that we’ve got the first seed in the region. This definitely helps us get in the driver’s seat.”
St. James is joined by Dale County, Geneva and Straughn at 1-0 in Region 2 play, while both the Trojans (2-1) and ACA (1-2) are on the road next week at region foes Bullock County and Booker T. Washington, respectively.
“You’re in a pandemic year, who knows what is going to happen between now and then,” ACA coach Michael Summers said. “You’ve got to keep playing. We’ve got to come ready on Monday. I still believe in what this team can be. I feel like we’re still a pretty physical team, I do think we did a much better job on the offensive line. I think we’ve found an identity on offense. I think there’s a lot of good things to build on, we just have to stay hungry.”
The Eagles had a pair of big plays slip through their fingers on the first two possessions. On their first offensive play, Hayes Hunt saw Preston Hicks behind the St. James’ defense, streaking for the end zone, but his throw skipped off Hicks’ fingertips. On the second possession, he threw a perfect strike in the end zone to Garrett Weathers, which was dropped.
“In the first half, we left three touchdowns on the field,” Summers said. “Now you can’t say we should have won because they’ll watch film and say they had plays they left on the field, but our first offensive play, we’re behind the coverage and we drop it. We drop another one, then we’ve got a guy uncovered in the end zone and throw to the wrong guy. That’s no criticism, we just left plays on the field.”
Early in the second quarter, St. James used passes of 15 yards to Thomas and 27 yards to Ethan Beard to drive deep into ACA territory. Jackson scrambled the final five yards, running over defenders Avery Stuart and Jack Thomas to reach the end zone for a 7-0 lead that would hold until halftime.
In the second half, the teams picked up the offense and defense was almost nonexistent as every offensive possession by either team found the end zone until Thomas’ interception turned back the Eagles midway through the fourth quarter.
“It was definitely a game changer, something you need in a football game like this,” Thomas said. “Things aren’t always going to go your way on the field. You just have to keep going and keep pushing despite all the conflict.”
ACA tailback Corey Landers, who had 95 yards on 19 carries, scored on a pair of 1-yard runs in Wildcat formation and Hunt, who completed 19 of 29 passes for 217 yards, found Trey Schlemmer behind the defense for a 19-yard touchdown.
Jackson, who torched the ACA secondary a year ago for 265 yards and four touchdowns, was just as effective on Friday. His first pass missed Clint Houser, but the next nine all found their target for 210 yards and three touchdowns, answering ACA’s game-tying touchdown with a 29-yard scoring strike to Thomas, adding a 57-yard pass to Beard that turned into a sprint for the end zone, then finding Beard behind everyone in the fourth quarter for a 28-yard touchdown that gave the Trojans a 28-21 lead, setting the stage for Thomas’ interception after Houser tipped away a pass for Stuart.
“We were going for two if we scored,” Summers said. “We weren’t stopping them. We really didn’t feel like they would stop us.”
The two teams combined to produce 528 yards in 54 second-half plays, an average of 9.8 yards every time the ball was snapped.
“We missed a lot of tackles and they had a lot to do with it, but I’m proud of our guys,” Perry said. “They’ve got a great team and we wish them the best the rest of the way.”
“We feel like we’re decent defensively,” Summers said. “We’re longer than they are in the secondary but they were faster and quicker. We said ‘can we handle their quickness?’ They didn’t hit us deep, we just did a really poor job of tackling in the second half.”
Last year, the ACA offense made the play to win the game and, ultimately, the region championship. This year, the St. James’ defense made the play.
“It was most definitely on our minds,” Thomas said. “We knew we couldn’t make the same mistake twice. Keep pushing despite what happens. Keep going.”
Thomas finished with seven tackles in addition to his interception, while teammates Ariel July and Clayton Craft had 11 and seven tackles, respectively. Jack Thomas led ACA with 10 tackles, followed by Donovan Emerson with six.