He’s glad he did, and so are the Panthers.
Morgan scored the game-winning touchdown – a 3-yard run with 2:36 left in the game – lifting the Panthers to a 15-12 victory at Class 1A, Region 7 rival Gaylesville on Friday.
“All our coaches have been telling us ‘Don’t give up.’ They believe in us, and it feels good to have someone believe in us,” Morgan said. “When we’ve got somebody backing us like that, we can do great things.”
Morgan wasn’t the only Panther player doing great things Friday night. Senior fullback Forrest Livingston was battling a bum ankle. After icing it all week, Livingston suited up and fought his way for 103 yards on 20 carries, including the Panthers’ (2-0, 1-0 Region 7) first score of the night – a 44-yard touchdown run with five minutes to go in the first half.
On the game-winning 14-play, 60-yard drive – a drive in which the Panthers converted three fourth-down plays – Livingston carried the ball nine times for 20 yards, which included two fourth-down conversions.
“When it comes down to it, it’s my last year, so what have I got to lose?” Livingston said. “I just gave it all I had. I give it to Gaylesville’s defense. It looked like they went over their game plan all week real hard. Our drives were hard-fought.”
Morgan also had a run of 26 yards on a fourth-down play to keep the game-winning drive alive.
But the feel-good story of the night belonged to Panther senior Will Penton.
Penton, a wide receiver, filled in at quarterback following Will Ivey’s shoulder injury at practice earlier in the week. It was the first time Penton played the position since peewee ball. He only completed 4 of 8 passes for 24 yards, but he managed the offense well.
“There were definitely a lot of nerves,” Penton said. “Coach Howard just said manage, fight and get us a win. That’s what I tried to do, get the ‘W’, and we managed to do that.”
Howard felt Penton “did a great job of managing the clock.”
“He completed just enough passes at critical times,” Howard said. “He hit Josh Hale on a hitch pass. He did what we asked him to do. We threw him in, and it cut back on the things we could do, but I couldn’t have asked for Will to play a better game.”
Howard was also proud of the resiliency his whole team showed Friday, particularly on the Panthers’ last drive after Gaylesville (0-2, 0-1) had taken a 12-7 lead on senior tailback John David Jennings’ 6-yard touchdown run.
“When Gaylesville went ahead, they (the Panthers) had a choice: put their heads down and feel sorry for themselves, or they could find a way,” Howard said. “Our kids just fought and fought and fought. They had some adversity. Gaylesville stuffed us for three quarters, but in the fourth quarter, when it counted, they sucked it up and that’s what it’s all about.”
Gaylesville wasn’t without its share of big plays. Junior defensive back Cole Murphy picked off Penton’s first pass attempt of the game, giving the Trojans the ball at the Panther 22 with 8:23 to go in the first quarter.
However, Spring Garden’s defense held, forcing the Trojans to turn the ball over on downs.
Both teams’ defenses frustrated the other until Livingston finally broke though on his 44-yard scamper down the visiting sideline. Penton’s extra point gave Spring Garden a 7-0 lead with five minutes to go before halftime.
Gaylesville countered with a touchdown to cap a 9-play, 57-yard drive just before the half ended. Murphy, also the Trojan quarterback, capped the drive with an 18-yard scoring pass to senior receiver Malachii Dutton.
Murphy was 11 of 22 through the air for 90 yards and a touchdown. He also rushed for 35 yards on 13 carries. Dutton caught six passes for 53 yards and a touchdown.
The Trojans went for two after Dutton’s score, but a penalty negated Murphy’s pass to junior tight end Gable Lawson. Instead, the Trojans had to settle for an extra-point attempt, which was booted wide left by Jennings. That kept the score at 7-6 in favor of Spring Garden.
Gaylesville took the lead with 8:49 left in the game. Jennings, who rushed for 36 yards on 13 carries, capped a 6-play, 39-yard drive with a 6-yard touchdown run in which he covered his own fumble in the end zone. His rush for the 2-point conversion failed, but the Trojans held a 12-7 lead with 8:49 left in the game.
That set up the Panthers’ game-winning drive. After Morgan scored on a 3-yard run, Penton tossed the 2-point conversion to senior tight end Jake Grogan, giving the Panthers a 15-12 advantage.
The Panthers’ defense took care of the rest, forcing Murphy to throw three incomplete passes on four downs.
“Obviously offensively, I didn’t have us doing what we needed to be doing,” Gaylesville coach Brian Clowdis said. “Defensively, I thought we played as good as we could play. Right there at the end, it was just one of those things where the ball didn’t bounce our way. We had a chance to make a play but we didn’t.”
Clowdis is proud of the progress the Trojans showed from last week’s 42-0 thrashing to another Region 7 rival, Cedar Bluff. However, penalties still continue to hurt the Trojans’ chances. They committed 11 for 65 yards on Friday.
“The hardest thing as a football coach to fix is effort, and I told them we were going to fix that this week,” Clowdis said, noting the Trojans had a hard week of practice.
“I told the kids if people are going to pay seven dollars and a family of four is going to come watch us play like we did last week, with no effort at the end, that’s not fair to anybody. We’re never going to do that again, and they kind of took a little pride in that. That’s the thing I’m proud of tonight. As long as we play with that much effort, we can fix the rest.”