Edgewood’s confidence on defense had to be hanging by a thread.
And Clarke Prep running back Jarrette Pope was clearly the reason why.
Pope terrorized the defense through the first two quarters, and his success on the ground seemed highly likely to continue after he sprinted 66 yards down the sideline to put Edgewood’s hopes of reaching its 45th straight win in serious doubt.
“He’s a heck of a ball player,” Wildcats quarterback Taylor Hawthorne said. “Our game plan coming in was to hit him low and we did, but he still didn’t go down.”
It was obvious that something positive on the defensive side needed to happen for the Wildcats (13-0).
With the Gators threatening to extend their advantage late in the third quarter, Edgewood got a timely break when Conner Hughes’ hit on Pope forced the ball loose and defensive back David Cayton picked it up and raced 85 yards the other way for the touchdown to slice the deficit to 44-40 at the 2:54 mark.
“I saw an opportunity and seized the moment,” said Cayton, a junior. “I saw my teammates started blocking for me, and I just ran all the way. That was the happiest I’ve been in all my life. It really touched my heart because it brought up and changed the game.”
Edgewood head coach Bobby Carr wasn’t aware of what just occurred.
“I didn’t even see it happened,” said Carr, who has guided the Wildcats to five state championships in six years. “I heard someone scream fumble, next thing I know, I see Cayton running the sideline. That was huge! It definitely got the momentum shifted to us.”
The touchdown basically stripped any confidence that Clarke Prep gained. With the Gators (8-5) stunned, Carr decided to keep the pressure on with an onsides kick that his squad would recover and capitalize on six plays later with Hawthorne’s 10-yard TD toss to Daniel Green to give Edgewood a lead it wouldn’t relinquish.
“We knew we had to always stay in front of them,” Clark Prep head coach Billy Hamilton said. “We don’t play catch up very well. We lost our composure in the second half. We didn’t come out in the third quarter the way we should have — something just happened to us.
“Something happened at halftime. I don’t know?”
Another Pope fumble eventually led to Edgewood pushing its lead to double digits behind Josh Crawford’s lone rushing touchdown up the middle midway through the final quarter. However, the Gators bounced back to make things interesting with less than two minutes to go.
Down only 54-52, Clarke Prep’s thoughts of potentially rallying went right out the window on the second play of its final drive with Hawthorne stepping in front of a pass from quarterback Hayden Nichols and returning it for the game-clinching TD.
“Coach (Scott) Story told us at halftime to keep battling because we’re going to eventually get a break,” Hawthorne said. “After the half, I think we did a great job of stopping them, or at least slowing them down enough for us to get the lead.”