MANCHESTER — Nobody across the state gave the Mount Zion High School football team a fighting chance against mighty Manchester on Friday night in the Class A Public state quarterfinals.
Nobody outside of the coaches and players in the Eagle locker room, that is.
Because by the end of the 10-6 elite eight thriller at Memorial Stadium, it was MZ standing mighty tall above the top-seeded and top-ranked Blue Devils upon making program history with its first-ever state semifinal berth.
The eighth-seeded Eagles (10-2), who also set a new program benchmark by reaching double-digit victories for the first time in a single season, found themselves trailing 6-3 in the fourth quarter with 1:55 left on the clock, no timeouts and taking over at their own 12-yard line.
A false start penalty actually moved the ball back to the 7 on the first play of the possession, but fortunes quickly turned when senior signal-caller C.J. Ackles struck Ray Cheeks for a 60-yard pass to move the ball into Blue Devil territory at the 33.
One play later, Ackles dialed up his favorite target in junior Iaan "Mike-Mike" Cousin and all of a sudden it was first-and-goal from the 5 following the 28-yard completion.
As the MZ sideline erupted into a frenzy and the Manchester crowd fell into a stunned silence, the Eagles were stopped for a four-yard loss on a run play, but the offense quickly got back over the ball and Ackles snared the snap, took a two-step drop and fired a strike to Cousin right at the goal-line with 23.9 seconds left to give MZ its first lead of the night, which stretched to 10-6 on a Matthew Tittle PAT.
"(My defender) had inside leverage, so I knew if I put a head-fake inside and got out quickly and the ball was put on the money, so it was an easy catch and score," said Cousin, who hauled in four receptions for 45 yards, including two for 37 yards on the game-winning drive.
While the offense shined on the final drive of the game, the Mount Zion defense proved to be the real story of the night, which included Case Jiles snagging the game-sealing interception on the Blue Devils' last-ditch heave to kick off the celebration.
Facing a Manchester offense that entered the game averaging 42.3 points per contest and featuring a 1-2 punch of Deenizio Gamble and Kelvin Turner in the backfield who had tallied a combined 2,413 yards on the season, the Eagles put forth an inspiring effort throughout the duration of 48 minutes, forcing three turnovers — two interceptions and a fumble — and only allowing one play of 20 yards or more, which was actually a 27-yard pass play early in the second quarter.
Gamble and Turner combined for a pedestrian 129 yards on 36 carries, an average of only 3.5 yards per tote compared to the seasonal standard of 8.5 through 11 games.
"Defensively, it was a team effort. They tried to pound us, they tried to run outside on us and defensively we just kept coming back again and again and again," first-year MZ head coach Brad Gordon said. "The biggest thing offensively we had the trouble, but we could move it just enough to flip the field. The only score we gave up was on the short field with the turnover. I couldn't be more proud."
Coming into Manchester (11-1) as a big underdog, Gordon reminded his team that anybody can be beat on any given night, using last week's upset of two-time defending state champion Cartersville as an example in the Class AAAA bracket.
"We told them that we believe if they believe. That's the biggest thing is they believed they could come down here and do it. Our cry last week, I hate to say it, but our cry was Cartersville. If Cartersville can be beat, Manchester can be beat," Gordon said. "Nobody gave us a chance and we got on the bus thinking, 'Here's our shot. We've got to prove we belong.' And we did."
The Eagles have embraced that underdog mentality not just this week, but all season to fuel the fire on this historic journey after graduating 19 of 22 starters last year.
"It feels better knowing that we came in as the underdog and that nobody believed in us. We came in with a chip on our shoulder and (Manchester) was a good team, but I don't think they had that same chip," Cousin said. "They've been up every game this year and we've been down in multiple games and we've had to fight back and I feel like this is one of the better ones we've fought back in."
MZ senior linebacker Cole Helton added that if people want to keep considering the Eagles as underdogs, it's not going to bother him one bit.
"It's nothing new. It's been like that for a long time, but I don't have a problem with being the underdog. We're completely fine with that as long as we keep winning," Helton said.
Helton actually recorded his final tackle of the evening bringing down his teammate Jiles after the last-second interception, making sure there wasn't any crazy turn of events on the return.
"I saw Case try to take off and I was just like, I can't let the ball get stripped. I've got to make this tackle," Helton laughed. "I went after him."
As for the play of the MZ defense, the four-year starter was proud of the grit it displayed in not giving Manchester anything easy all night long.
"It was just about not bowing down to them, getting after them and not letting them intimidate us," Helton said.
The defensive struggle started early, with Manchester's powerful front causing all sorts of problems for the Eagle ground game, holding MZ to negative 20 yards on 11 carries in the first half.
MZ's best offensive play of the first half — a 60-yard strike from Ackles to Cousin — was negated due to a holding penalty midway through the second quarter.
The Eagles, meanwhile, contained Manchester's high-powered rushing game, as the Blue Devils had a net of just under 100 yards of total offense at the break.
Manchester's only score came on a short field following an Eagle fumble at their own 42, resulting in an eight-play drive that was capped on a six-yard touchdown run by Gamble. Quarterback Garrett Brown's two-point pass overshot his receiver, leaving it 6-0 with 6:45 remaining in the second quarter.
The Eagle defense forced a pair of first-half turnovers, the first of which was a fumble Ackles recovered in MZ territory with 3:24 left in the half, but a quick three-and-out gave the ball back to the Blue Devils.
Coming off his three-interception performance a week ago, Tyriese Farley kept it going with an interception of Brown in the final minute of the half. Farley's 50-yard return set MZ up at the Blue Devil 7-yard line with 48 seconds to go, but the visitors had to settle for a 25-yard Tittle field goal.
Even so, the Eagles felt good about their chances going into the half trailing only by three. Gordon said it goes back to the character and poise of the MZ seniors.
"They wanted this one. When we went into that locker room and down 6-3 at the half, there was never any doubt. It was just calm and collected. The offensive coaches went in there and got them coached up. We made a few adjustments defensively. It was just time to go to work," Gordon said. "We told them to come out and finish what they started and they did."
And that set the stage for one of the most memorable finishes in Mount Zion history, as Ackles engineered the game-winning drive after taking monster hit after monster hit all night long, as well as flipping the field with seven punts on the night.
Completing 8-of-16 attempts for 140 yards with a touchdown and no interceptions — including a couple of key drops that could have added to his passing total — Ackles proved to be a cool customer under pressure and saved his best for when it mattered most.
"It's just a game to me. I've been in that place a lot of times. I just tried to give my team what they needed and they had my back. So it worked out," Ackles said.
And now the Eagles will make an even longer road trip to face fifth-seeded Clinch County (10-2) in the state semifinals next Friday in Homerville with the winner advancing to Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta for the Class A Public state championship game.
"It feels great. We're just playing week-to-week now. We trust each other and have each others' back. This team, we know we can win," Ackles said. "Everybody else might doubt us, but we don't listen to outside voices. We just play."