Nelson had missed the past month of the season with a torn quad muscle in his right leg. His presence helped bolster a Cedar Bluff defense against Class 1A, Region 6 rival Spring Garden on Friday.
It was a presence they sorely needed back in the lineup.
Nelson and the rest of the Tiger defense withstood two Spring Garden possessions inside the red zone within the last minute of the game, and held on to claim a 12-8 victory.
“Our ‘D’ just stepped it up and kept playing tough,” said Nelson, who finished with 5 ½ tackles and three assists. “I was glad to be able to be a part of them tonight. They’re just a great group of guys. They just never give up.”
Cedar Bluff head coach Jonathan McWhorter gave credit to his team for not backing down when things weren’t going their way for the better part of three quarters.
“They never quit fighting until the last second went off the clock,” he said. “We didn’t have a big night on offense. The weather kind of hurt what we were trying to do a little bit, but when it came down to it, we made the plays to win the game. I’m just so proud of our kids for coming through and never quitting.”
Trailing 8-6 heading into the fourth quarter, Cedar Bluff (5-2, 4-1) gained the lead on Kyle Crane’s 23-yard touchdown pass to Marcus Reese. The Tigers went for two, but were denied to keep the score in favor of Cedar Bluff at 12-8 with 7:20 remaining in the game.
“I’m sitting there making my reads, and I see Marcus break,” Crane said. “As soon as I threw the ball, I got hit, and I couldn’t really tell if he scored or not. After I got my senses back, I could tell that he scored.”
The Panthers (3-4, 3-2) responded to the Tiger touchdown by driving the ball inside the Cedar Bluff 10, but on 4th-and-goal from the 6, quarterback Tyler Smart was forced to run out of bounds at the 2-yardline with 1:58 to go in the game.
Three Crane rushes just to give the Tigers some breathing room yielded only four yards, forcing Cedar Bluff to punt.
Spring Garden set up at the Tiger 26 with 1:07 remaining, and once again drove deep inside Tiger territory.
The Panthers found themselves at the Tiger 11 with 14 ticks left on the clock. Smart connected with Cory Anderson for what appeared to be the game-winning touchdown, but a penalty for an illegal receiver down field nullified the score.
The Panthers had one last shot with 6.3 seconds left, but Smart’s pass to the left corner of the end zone sailed high of the mark to Kaleb Littlejohn.
“I thought they fought to the very end,” Spring Garden coach Jason Howard said. “It was a good football game. I hate that it ended with a little controversy, but all the credit to our kids for fighting and getting back down there to do that. They didn’t give up.”
Spring Garden took a 6-0 lead with 10:34 to go in the second quarter on Smart’s 20-yard rush up the middle. Cedar Bluff’s Zach Taylor blocked the extra point.
“The blocked extra point was big,” McWhorter said. “With the kicker (Spring Garden’s Jake Scott) they have, you have a game that’s a 3-point game and they’re inside the 20, he’s automatic. That changes the whole complexion of what goes on.”
The Panthers added to their lead with a safety at the 4:23 mark of the second quarter. The Tigers were backed up at their own 20 and a high snap forced Crane to chase the ball down in the end zone. He couldn’t get a pass away in time from heavy Panther pressure, forcing the safety and an 8-0 Tiger deficit.
Crane and Reese hooked up for the Tigers’ first score just before the half. The duo connected on a 34-yard touchdown pass with 27.4 seconds remaining in the second quarter. Crane was intercepted by Scott on the try for two, keeping Spring Garden in front 8-6.
Crane finished the game completing 7 of 18 passes for 179 yards and two touchdowns. Reese had three receptions for 62 yards and two scores.
Scott led the Panthers 56 yards rushing on 15 carries. Trey Littlefield added 43 yards on 11 attempts. Smart had 27 yards on 16 carries and Spring Garden’s lone touchdown.
Although disappointed with the loss, Howard praised the Panthers’ effort.
“I told them in the huddle after it was over I couldn’t be more pleased with their effort and everything else that went along with it. It’s just that Cedar Bluff stepped up and did well too,” Howard said. “Overall, I thought we played solid on what we were trying to do. The kids showed a lot of heart and a lot of effort.”
Cedar Bluff has a showdown at Gaston next Friday, while Spring Garden travels to Woodville.
“We’ve got to recover from this and get our heads screwed back on right,” Howard said. “We’ve got Woodville and Skyline, so we’ve got two huge region games coming up. When we’re done (with region play) and if we’re at 5-2, that’s all we can do. I think at 5-2 we have an opportunity to get in there (the playoffs), and that’s all you can ask for.”