Alexander and New Manchester squared off on the gridiron for the first time Friday night. The Cougars managed to edge out the Jaguars at home thanks to a late fumble, 35-26, giving them the third seed in Region 5-AAAAA. With the loss, New Manchester will take the fourth seed in the region, meaning both teams will advance to the first round of the state playoffs next Friday.

AHS took a 21-0 lead in the game against the Jags behind quarterback Baylor Whitfield and running back Caleb Freeman, only to have New Manchester battle back with 19 unanswered points behind quarterback Tabashi Thomas. Thanks to one big defensive stop near their own goalline, the Cougars were able to outscore the Jags, 14-7, in the second half.

“Their quarterback makes it hard to defend anything,” said AHS coach Matt Combs. “He is elusive and makes you have to stay disciplined for 8, 9, 10 seconds. Plays are not supposed to last that long. In most football games, plays last six seconds, and when he is dancing around for 12 seconds it is tough. But our guys made plays when they needed to. Both the players and the coaches made some great adjustments at the half and the kids executed.”

Alexander wasted little time getting on the scoreboard, taking the opening kickoff and going 69 yards in two and a half minutes. Whitfield came out firing, hitting a couple of receivers for first downs. Freeman carried the ball for most of the drive, and pushed it into the endzone on an eight yard run up the middle. Andrew Chandler connected on the point after for a 7-0 lead.

After both teams exchanged possessions, running out much of the first quarter, the Cougars jumped up to a two touchdown lead on a 72-yard touchdown reception by Mikell Lands-Davis.

Standing deep in their own territory, Whitfield took the snap and sent a swing pass out to Lands-Davis. The Georgia Tech verbally committed running back broke free up the left sideline and then cut across field to pull away from the last Jaguar defenders. He trotted into the endzone for six points. The kick was good, putting AHS up, 14-0.

In the second quarter, Whitfield continued to dominate through the air. He connected with Isaac Zico for a 32 yard reception. The QB took a hit on the play, drawing a personal foul penalty. Zico managed to hang on to the ball despite a pass interference call. Now inside the redzone, the two Alexander players connected again, this time for a 10-yard touchdown in the left corner of the endzone with 8:30 left in the first half. The kick up the Cougars up by 21.

Midway through the second quarter, AHS got the ball back and Freeman picked up where he left off on the opening drive. He had rushes of 20 and 26 yards. The drive stalled at the 24 yard line and Chandler came in to attempt a 34-yard field goal. However, the ball sailed wide right of its mark.

The Jaguar offense finally broke free for a touchdown with 4:09 to go in the quarter. Brian Herrien took a handoff from Thomas and charged up the middle of the field. He ran through Leon Agee, who’s helmet flew off upon contact. Herrien then out-sprinted the next AHS defender to the goalline for the TD. New Manchester missed the extra point due to a bad snap and now trailed, 21-6.

The Jags continued to rally late in the quarter. After recovering a fumble near midfield, Thomas hit a wide open Jacob Battle way down field for a 41-yard score. No Alexander defender was within 20 yards of Battle when Thomas released the ball. Jesse Theodocion connected on the point after, cutting the deficit to eight points.

At the end of the quarter, New Manchester got the ball one more time with a minute and a half remaining. They worked quickly behind the passing game and the scrambling of Thomas. At the two yard line, with 20 seconds to go, Herrien took the ball around the left corner for six points. The Jags went for two points but the pass was incomplete.

The game went into the half with AHS holding on to a narrow, 21-19 advantage.

New Manchester received the ball after the break and continued to run up the middle, picking up five to six yards at a time. The drive stalled after a penalty inside the redzone. Theodocion entered to attempt the short kick, but the ball sailed to the right. The Jags came up empty on the five minute drive.

After the long, methodical drive by New Manchester, Alexander struck lightning quick. Baylor connected with Zico on a 62 yard pass. Omahri Jarrett made a diving tackle to prevent the TD, but on the next snap, Whitfield kept the ball himself, rushing for 15 yards and score. The kick put the Cougars up, 28-19 with 4:43 remaining in the third quarter.

On the ensuing kick return, Herrien brought the ball all the way back to the AHS 31 yard line. Three plays later, Thomas sent a floater into the left corner of the endzone. Tyrone Scott made an over the shoulder catch and held on to the ball after flipping over a small wall just beyond the field. The kick was good and the Cougar lead was back down to two points.

A risky fake punt in their own territory produced big for Alexander on the next drive when Freeman pushed the ball into the endzone on a 9-yard run up the middle. The kick put AHS up, 35-26 at the start of the fourth quarter.

The Jags took possession and used a horse collar penalty to move the ball into Cougar territory. However, the AHS defense picked up a big stop on fourth down, forcing the turnover on downs with 7:30 to play. New Manchester answered with a stop of their own, forcing a punt. During the kick return, Alexander’s leading defensive tackler, Jordan Pounds, was injured and helped off the field.

New Manchester moved downfield quickly with Thomas finding Tyler Simmons on a 34 yard pass and Scott on a 29 yard connection. On the AHS five yard line, Thomas took the snap but the ball was knocked away. Aden Jordan recovered the ball but a New Manchester player caught up with him at midfield, knocking the ball out of his hands. However, the second fumble was recovered by Alexander’s Jacob Whitley.

The turnover sealed the fate of the Jaguars as AHS ran down the clock for the win.

“I thought it was only a matter of time before we would get to [Thomas],” Combs said. “Tray Jureidini-Wyche, who we call Houdini, kept slipping out of things and making plays and he got to him and made a big play. It was an opportunity and we seized it. That is what this team does.”

For the Cougars, Whitfield finished the game with 22 passes for 289 yards and two touchdowns. Freeman rushed the ball 30 times for 148 yards and two scores. Lands-Davis had eight catches for 109 yards and a TD. Zico had nine catches for 150 yards and a score.

For the Jaguars, Thomas completed 12-of-23 passes for 195 yards and two scores.Thomas, Herrien and Jarrett finished the game with a combined 190-plus yards on the ground and two touchdowns.

“It was a great high school football team and my hats off to Alexander, they were the better football team,” said NMHS coach Rob Cleveland. “I can’t say anything negative about what they did. They took advantage of all their opportunities and we did not. The good news is we live to play another day and I am glad these seniors get to play a playoff game.”

Both teams will be on the road next week. The Jaguars will travel to Creekside while Alexander heads to Stephenson.

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