JEFFERSON — Jefferson backup quarterback T.J. Skelton had just four days to prepare for his first start of the 2013 season Friday.
He played the game like he had been there many times before, even when his team had its back up against the wall.
Skelton rushed for an 11-yard touchdown in overtime to cap off his spectacular night for Jefferson, leading the 10th-ranked Dragons’ to a 26-20 win over unbeaten Rabun County.
Once the former Madison County signal caller had punched in the go-ahead score on Jefferson’s first overtime possession, the Dragons (4-2, 2-1 Region 8-AA) forced the Wildcats into a turnover on downs to secure the win.
“My heart was pounding hard, but I was trying to be a leader for my team,” said Skelton. He replaced starter Evan Sherriffs, who suffered an arm injury in last week’s game.
Jefferson rallied from a 20-13 deficit entering the fourth quarter after giving up three fumbles and two touchdowns to Rabun County (5-1, 2-1) in the second half.
With the Dragons out of their groove, coach Ben Hall simplified the offense for his new starter, letting Skelton use his speed as often as needed to keep his team moving up the field.
Did it ever work. With 6:27 remaining on the clock, Skelton ran the ball five times on a 57-yard, four first-down drive, taking draws up the middle for big yards before scoring on a 3-yard run to tie the game with just over three minutes left to play.
“To me, if they can’t stop it, why not keep doing it?” Skelton said. “We just needed to come together, and once we came together everything was good.
“We’re a team of brothers and we’re going to take this all the way to the top.”
After a Rabun County three-and-out and the ball back in Jefferson’s hands with 2:17 left in regulation, the Dragons let Skelton keep control. He completed four passes, all to Chandler Thompson, to march his team to the Wildcats’ 5 with four seconds remaining.
Had it not been for a missed 22-yard field goal by Austin Pankevich, Jefferson would’ve won the game right then after opening the final quarter down by seven.
“We’re an (I-form) team, and we knew we were going to have to just run our foundation plays out of the I,” Hall said.
"They were crowding the box, and play action was hit or miss. So we decided to spread it a little bit.
“We’re having a little bit of trouble with quarterback-center exchange, so we faced adversity. But the kids responded when it mattered.”
Skelton finished the game with a team-high 116 yards and two touchdowns on 16 carries, including the game-winning score. He went 11 for 24 passing with 119 yards and another touchdown on his first pass attempt of the game.
With Sherriffs potentially out for the rest of the season, Skelton may have given Jefferson a shot of confidence after its loss to Washington-Wilkes last Friday.
“He did what he needed him to do at the end of the game,” Hall said. “He’s only going to get better. We’re so limited right now with him at quarterback.”
The Dragons totaled 370 yards of total offense in the game.
Defensively, Jefferson managed to slow down a Rabun County team known for its fast-paced passing attack under former Flowery Branch coach Lee Shaw. The Wildcats only managed 205 yards of offense, including just 81 through the air.
“Our defense had a nice night,” Hall said. “They were zoned in, and they won the ball game for us. And they needed to.
“They know our situation on offensive personnel. We’re banged up in some places, and we were putting some pieces together this week. Our defense held it together and won the game for us, and I’m proud of them.”
Jefferson took the initial lead four minutes into the first quarter on an 18-yard pass from Skelton to Thompson, an advantage it would maintain until midway through the second.
Rabun County didn’t enter Dragons territory until the second quarter, but made it count when it finally got there. The Wildcats unloaded an 82-yard drive that ended on a 6-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Wes Holcombe to freshman Hunter Sims to the game at 7 with seven minutes until halftime.
Taking advantage of good field position to start the ensuing drive, Jefferson scored four minutes later on a 1-yard run by Sammy Williams, who punched in the score by diving over a pile of defenders and somersaulting into the end zone. The missed PAT gave the Dragons a 13-7 lead, which they took into halftime.
Rabun County took its first lead of the game midway through the third quarter, when Holcombe scored on a 1-yard keeper. The play was set up by a 39-yard fumble recovery return by Wildcats defensive tackle Daniel Fonclara.
Fonclara recovered another fumble on the Dragons’ 33-yard line on the following drive, setting up a 5-yard run by Dan Dailey five players later to put Rabun County up 20-13.
Jefferson coughed up another fumble for a third straight possession on the first play of the fourth quarter when Jeremiah Brown scooped a botched pitch by Skelton to his running back. The Wildcats couldn’t do anything with the opportunity and were forced to punt.