MARIETTA — Pope beat Sprayberry by a matter of inches.
A 57-yard field goal attempt by the Yellow Jackets’ Rodrigo Blankenship bounced off the center of the crossbar with 1:02 left in the fourth quarter, and the Greyhounds escaped with a 14-12 victory Thursday at the Pope Multi-Sport Complex.
When Blankenship lined up for his attempt, there was a collective gasp of skepticism in the crowd. Once the ball left his foot, there was another gasp — this one of disbelief.
“When it first left his foot, I didn’t think it would get there,” said Pope coach Matt Kemper, who, after calling a timeout to ice Blankenship, then put the tallest players on his roster on the field in an attempt to block the kick.
“But it kept carrying and carrying.”
After taking over possession, all Pope had to do was kneel down three times to run out the clock.
After the teams shook hands, some Pope players still couldn’t believe how close the game — one they had controlled for 48 minutes — came from being taken away from them.
“Wow, unbelievable,” one player said.
“That kid has a cannon for a leg,” another said of Blankenship.
For Sprayberry coach Billy Shackelford, the near-miss was a little more difficult to take.
“We were 3 inches from a victory,” said Shackelford, who said he has seen Blankenship make 61- and 62-yard kicks in practice. “There aren’t a lot of NFL kickers that could have tried that one.”
Blankenship, a sophomore, is considered one of the nation’s top high school kickers for the class of 2015, and Kemper said if he knew how close the kick was going to be, he would have had second thoughts about going for first down on a fourth-and-1 from the Sprayberry 40 with 3:39 to play.
That fourth-down conversion failed, giving Sprayberry its last-ditch drive.
“That kid is dangerous,” Kemper said of Blankenship. “We should have punted the ball deep.”
The victory was Pope’s fifth in a row and moved it to 5-2 overall and, more importantly, 2-0 in Region 7AAAAA (B). It also gave the Greyhounds the all-important head-to-head tiebreaker with Sprayberry (2-5, 1-1) for playoff seeding.
While the late field goal attempt was the main topic of conversation as fans filed out, Thursday’s game turned out to be a defensive battle — with a few big plays thrown in.
Pope held Sprayberry to 206 yards and only nine first downs on the night. The Yellow Jackets allowed 317 yards and always seemed to find a way to get off the field just when it seemed like the Greyhounds were about to get something going.
“Both (defenses) played well,” Kemper said. “I wouldn’t have guessed that score for a second. I would have thought both teams would have been able to score.”
Pope got on the board first when it went to the hurry-up offense late in the first quarter. Quarterback Stephen Skruck, who ran for 66 yards on the night, chose right on the read option and broke off tackle for 52 yards down to the Sprayberry 20-yard line. Three plays later, Ronald Woods bulled his way in from the 3 and the Greyhounds took a 7-0 lead.
The score stayed that way until early in the third quarter, when the Yellow Jackets’ Torrey Richardson intercepted a pass and returned it 47 yards to the Greyhounds’ 3-yard line.
Two plays later, Shane Young, who finished 9-of-15 for 129 yards and two touchdowns, connected with Miles Wallace for a 5-yard touchdown.
But instead of Sprayberry tying the game at 7-all, there was a problem between the snap and hold on the kick. The Yellow Jackets tried to improvise, but a pass by Blankenship fell incomplete.
Pope then answered with the only sustained drive of the night.
The Greyhounds, behind quarterback Sam Yarborough, drove 80 yards in 15 plays, highlighted by 33 of Itabari Mason’s 102 rushing yards, a 25-yard pass to Logan Carr and a 10-yard touchdown pass to Mason Shiflett.
The touchdown extended Pope’s lead to 14-6, but it didn’t stay that way long.
On the third play of the ensuing drive, Young hit Wallace in stride in the middle of the field. Wallace, who had three catches for 94 yards, split a pair of Pope defenders and outran them 73 yards to the end zone to cut the lead to 14-12.
This time the Yellow Jackets went for a 2-point conversion by design, but the pass again fell incomplete.
“That’s football,” Shackelford said. “I’m just so proud of both of these teams. That was one heck of a football game.”