By Robert Carter
North Jefferson News
ADAMSVILLE — New Gardendale football coach Matt Plunkett had a defense to be proud of in his head coaching debut Friday night, and he was — telling the “D” to stand up and take a bow after the game.
The offense? Not so much, but it was good enough for a win as the Rockets beat Minor 14-7 on the road in the season opener.
Gardendale had huge problems hanging on to the ball, with four lost fumbles and an interception in the first half alone. But they more than made up for the gifts to the Tenacious Tigers by smothering them at almost every opportunity.
“Ball security is something we had an issue with last spring, but we fixed it and it never popped up again, until tonight,” Plunkett said. “We didn’t put the ball on the ground one time in fall camp, and I didn't bring it up again, and then it hit us tonight. I think we’re going to mark it up to a lack of focus, and get after it this next week.”
Three of the Rockets’ first four possessions ended in turnovers, two of them on the first play of the drive. But on the last — a fumble by Juan Jackson on the Minor 16, just after Tanner Clayton came up with an interception for Gardendale — the Tigers were pinned back by their own penalties. And on fourth down and 15, the long snap to punter Ryan England went over his head. Keyneen Fikes picked up the loose ball and ran in for the touchdown with 2:46 left in the first quarter.
Minor answered quickly. Three plays into the next drive, Maurice Smitherman on a sweep, and somehow threaded the needle through an 18-inch-wide space between a defender and the sideline. He then dashed 75 yards for the Tigers’ only touchdown — in fact, it was their only big play of the game.
The Rockets scored what turned out to be the winning touchdown with 4:05 left in the first half, as quarterback Hunter Crook connected with Zach Cupps for a 42-yard score.
From that point on, the Gardendale defense simply wouldn’t let the Tigers gain any momentum. Minor quarterback Dre’Quan Pritchett had trouble finding his targets all night, with errant throws coming off of Rocket pressure.
Minor had a chance on their last drive of the game, as they took over on the 20 after a missed 28-yard field goal that clanked off the left upright. Aided by a Gardendale face-mask penalty, they drove all the way down to the Rocket 10 before Pritchett fumbled, and linebacker Justin Fillmore recovered. Juan Jackson gained a first down on three running plays in the last minute to run out the clock.
“Willie Wyatt and our defensive staff did a terrific job of getting this team ready to play,” Plunkett said. “I felt very confident in them coming in. Minor had a lot of weapons, and we had to put ourselves in position to be successful, and that’s what we did.”
The teams were fairly even on the stat sheet, with Minor tallying 239 total yards to Gardendale’s 211. Crook was 8-for-19 passing with two interceptions for 118 yards for the visitors, while the Tigers’ Pritchett threw 37 times but completed just nine with two picks for 98 yards.
Minor totaled four turnovers; they fumbled four times, losing the ball twice.
The Rockets were relatively penalty-free until the fourth quarter, where they were penalized three times for 35 yards. The Tigers struggled with flags throughout, with 11 calls for 77 yards.
Gardendale begins regional play next week when they take on Woodlawn in their home opener.