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Central-Phenix City holds off late-charging Opelika in thriller

Central-Phenix City holds off late-charging Opelika in thriller

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Opelika vs. Central-Phenix City high school football

Central-Phenix City running back Joseph McKay (23) carries the ball during the team's win over Opelika on Friday night in Bulldog Stadium.

After putting Central up earlier against Opelika on Friday thanks to two long touchdown runs, running back Joseph McKay got his chance in the final minutes to end a late Opelika rally. True to form, McKay stepped up and got the job done.

McKay reached the first-down marker on third-and-4 with 57 seconds left in the game to close out a 245-yard, two-touchdown performance for the senior tailback and close the book on Opelika in a 21-19 victory for the Red Devils. The loss served as a disappointing ending for the Bulldogs, who fell behind 21-10 midway through the third quarter on the legs of two explosive plays by McKay before charging back.

“(McKay’s touchdowns) were huge. Joe’s a great player, and he played great on those two plays. He absolutely played great,” Central head coach Patrick Nix said. “I thought we played absolutely great defense. We made some plays when we got down there and had a couple turnovers that were key for us. Joe had an incredible start to the second half, which was unreal.”

Neither offense had found much running room when McKay changed that narrative on his 12th carry of the night.

Following Baker Rowton’s 27-yard field goal to cut Central’s lead to 7-3, McKay carried the ball on the next play from scrimmage, cut to his left then raced up the sideline past all the Opelika defenders on a 90-yard run to create a 14-3 contest with 6:55 left in the third. McKay went back to work on the next drive after an Opelika three-and-out by once again taking off to the end zone on the first play of the drive, this one on a 61-yard run.

McKay had torched Opelika’s defense on consecutive carries and left Opelika (3-2, 3-0) reeling in a 21-3 hole with 5:10 remaining in the third. To the Bulldogs and quarterback Malik Finley’s credit, they refused to throw in the towel.

The Opelika defense held strong after a fumble by the offense after McKay’s second score, and on the Bulldogs’ next drive Finley fired across the middle on 3rd-and-8 to Shawn Jones, who made the catch then took off down the middle of the field with nary a tackler in sight for a 76-yard touchdown.

Following a three-and-out by Central (4-2, 3-0), the Bulldogs created another impressive drive that ended with Rowton connecting on another field goal to cut the Red Devils’ advantage to 21-13 with 7:29 to go in the game.

Opelika running back Eric Watts had found very little running room through the first three quarters, leaving him with 27 carries for just 70 yards by the time the Bulldogs’ defense forced its second straight three-and-out. This time, Watts was determined to find an opening and exploit it.

Watts got in on the explosive rushing plays to start Opelika’s next drive, as he cut outside and, very much like McKay did earlier, glided past multiple defenders in a footrace that Watts won by a landslide. Trailing by two points with 4:35 to go, Opelika opted to go for two with Watts lined up behind center, but Watts couldn’t find any running room and the conversion attempt was no good.

Watts ended the night with 31 carries for 171 yards and one touchdown.

Opelika was down but not quite out after the two-point attempt. The Bulldogs defense once again stifled Central, leading to a punt that gave Opelika the ball back on its 16-yard line with 3:33 left on the clock and all three timeouts. The Bulldogs began methodically working their way down the field, closing in on field goal range for Rowton — until Central’s Jaylin Robinson ended their hopes.

With the ball on the Opelika 45-yard line, Robinson recognized a screen pass developing and jumped into the mix just in time to make an interception that sealed Central’s victory. From there came the Red Devils’ final possession in which they fed McKay three more times and watched him get the 10 yards the team needed to seal the deal.

“The guys just fought and kept fighting the whole game,” Nix said. “We had some adversity, but just kept fighting the whole game.”

The wild final quarter-and-a-half of play followed what was very much a defensive struggle for both sides.

After Opelika defensive back Jarell Stinson jumped the route and made an interception with 4:02 left in the first quarter, the Bulldogs pieced together a drive that seemed destined to end in the end zone.

Opelika quarterback Mailk Finley led a 20-play drive that covered 86 yards and featured six first downs along with running back JD Tolbert’s fourth-down conversion just past midfield.

The possession, however, ended in disaster when Central’s DQ Brown lowered his shoulder as running back Eric Watts started falling toward the goal line. Brown knocked the ball out of Watts’ grasp, ending in a Central recovery in the end zone for a touchback.

Once the Red Devils’ offense returned to the field, the unit was determined to break through.

Quarterback Trey Miles made the most of his first drive of the evening, and after two solid runs from Zion Morris he connected with Kamello English for a 16-yard gain. Once a Opelika pass-interference penalty pushed Central to the 23-yard line, Miles fired downfield to Morris, who spun around just in time to make the catch for the game’s first points.

After the extra point, Central led 7-0 with 4:45 to go before halftime.

Opelika geared up for a response, but once again the promising possession ended flat. The Bulldogs marched down the field 48 yards on nine plays, but after the Red Devils forced a 4th-and-8 Opelika sent the kick team out for a 31-yard attempt.

The field goal missed the mark, leaving the Bulldogs down seven at the intermission.

Nix spoke earlier in the week about the importance of showing up Friday ready to face Opelika despite a pivotal region game against Auburn High looming. After the victory, Nix made it clear he and his players would celebrate beating the Bulldogs before turning their focus on the Tigers.

“We’ll just enjoy the win. We’ll enjoy this win and enjoy this night. It’s a big win for our guys,” Nix said. “We’ll just be thankful for this one right now.”

Central 21, Opelika 19

CEN — 0 7 14 0 - 21

OPE — 0 0 10 9 - 19

2nd Quarter

CEN — Zion Morris 23-yd reception from Trey Miles (4:45)

3rd Quarter

OPE — Baker Rowton 27 field goal, 7:15

CEN — Joseph McKay 90 run (XP good), 6:55

CEN — McKay 61 run (XP good), 5:10

OPE — Shawn Jones 76 reception from Malik Finley (XP good), 2:33

4th Quarter

OPE — Rowton 34 field goal, 7:29

OPE — Eric Watts 87 run (2-pt no good), 4:35

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