Shane Shoemaker – Sports Writer
On a locally televised Friday Night Rivals game of the week on the CW Chattanooga network, the Whitwell Tigers defeated the Sale Creek Panthers, 20-8, remaining undefeated, making them 5-0 on the season.
The last time the Tigers were 5-0 starting the season was back in 2018. They ended the year winning their first ever State Championship in the school’s history. This year’s team is now only the fourth team in school history to win their first five games since 1930.
The Class 1A, sixth-ranked, Tigers traveled for their second away game this season facing the ninth-ranked Panthers, which had major ramifications for the Region 3-1A.
Now with the win, the Tigers will most likely be in line for a home playoff game. However, the Tigers still have three region games left, one being a Thursday night showdown in the last regular season game of the year against first-ranked South Pittsburg.
The Tigers won Friday night’s game doing what they’ve been doing best all season: running the ball and creating turnovers through their stout defense.
Coming into the game against the Panthers, the Tigers had only allowed a combined 32 points all season, with part of that due to their +3 turnover differential. On Friday, their defense allowed only eight points, creating three more turnovers.
The biggest of these came from Bubba Smith’s interception in the Tigers own territory on the Panthers first drive of the second half.
The Panthers had driven down the field, getting inside the Tigers own five-yard-line, but an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty by Sale Creek’s Ridge Morgan drove them back an extra 15 yards. This caused quarterback Khari Escobar on the following play to loft the ball in the air, allowing the Tigers’ Smith to make an easy pick.
By that point, the Tigers were already up 14-2.
The first Tigers’ score came off their first drive of the game that went 14 plays, taking up nearly half of the first quarter. Converting two third downs and one fourth down on the drive, the Tigers eventually ended it on a one-yard touchdown run by Bennett McDougal. Although, they missed the extra point, making it 6-0.
However, the Tigers weren’t done scoring in the first quarter.
After Whitwell’s Wyatt Davis picked off Escobar on the following drive, the Tigers quickly followed that up just one play later with a 64-yard touchdown pass from Brandon Easterly to McDougal. A successful Easterly two-point conversion made it 14-0.
The Panthers at times showed, much like the Tigers, that they could run the ball effectively. Successfully getting into Tigers’ territory but could never capitalize off of it.
On a long 18-play drive in the second-quarter, Panthers’ wide receiver Evan Higgins dropped a fourth-down, four-yard touchdown pass from Escobar, turning the ball over on downs. However, Higgins and fellow Panthers’ teammate Daniel Hall made up for it only a few plays later.
With the Tigers deep in their own territory after the turnover on downs, McDougal was sacked in the endzone by Higgins and Hall, causing a safety. Which resulted in two-points for the Panthers for a 14-2 score.
Both teams wouldn’t score again until the fourth quarter.
Hoping to put the game away for good mid-way through the fourth, the Tigers thought they had Adam McDougal on a diving, toe-tapping touchdown reception in the endzone. However, referees ruled him out of bounds.
Whitwell coaches questioned the call. The Sale Creek field sprinkler system went off abruptly, temporarily stopping the plays.
What was then a 4th and 9 eventually became a 4th and 14 after a delay of game penalty on the Tigers inside Panthers’ territory. But Whitwell Head Coach Rocky Stephenson and staff dug deep into their bag of trick plays to pull off their next feat.
On a well-designed play, the snap went to McDougal, who then pitched it back to Easterly. McDougal then ran out to catch the screen pass from Easterly who ran 25 yards down the sideline for the score at the 6:53 mark. An unsuccessful two-point conversion made it 20-2.
Looking to make it a bit more respectable on the score sheet, with 1:46 left in the fourth, Panthers’ quarterback Escobar had to be pushed through by virtually all of his other 10 teammates on the field to get through the Tigers’ defensive front to make a one-yard touchdown run for a 20-8 final score after an unsuccessful two-point conversion.
The Tigers now move on to their final home game of the season against another region opponent in Copper Basin, where they hope to stay undefeated.