OAKWOOD — The divided alignment in Region 7-AAA has plenty of detractors. Just don’t count Johnson High football coach Paul Friel in that group.
Johnson is now in a first place tie with Flowery Branch (6-1, 1-0) in Region 7B-AAA after its 34-18 win Friday night against West Hall at Billy Ellis Memorial Stadium in the Battle of Oakwood. For the second consecutive season, the Knights (3-4, 1-0 Region 7B-AAA) reap the rewards of playing in a region alignment where playoff qualification is based only on how you play in your subregion.
"Now I’m a big fan of the subregion," Friel said. "Now we’re 1-0 and really have a chance."
Johnson’s win helps erase the memories of their four-game skid against nonsubregion opponents. Of course, those games mean little, if anything, at this point.
"Winning this one against West Hall means we’re right back on track," Johnson running back Seth Evans said.
The Knights rallied to victory against West Hall on a strong defensive performance. Johnson scored two long defensive touchdowns off of Spartans (2-6) turnovers in the fourth quarter.
Johnson’s Josh Owens scored on a 80-yard fumble recovery after Gilberto Espinoza jarred the ball loose from West Hall’s quarterback. It was his second fumble recovery for a touchdown; he scored in similar fashion against Gainesville last season in the Knights’ win.
"This win was huge for us (tonight)," Owens said. "We got tired of losing. Next week against Gainesville is going to be huge for us."
After Owens’ long touchdown, the Knights defense still wasn’t finished scoring.
Following another sack by Espinoza deep in Knights territory, Joey Wirsing got his hands on an interception and had a solid down field block to score an 86-yard touchdown.
"We took some risks and got after it with our blitzing," Friel said. "And lucky for us it paid off."
Johnson’s offense played adequately in the absence of starting quarterback Bobby Wirsing, who missed the game with a lower back injury, according to Friel. Knights sophomore Anthony Prophet played well and kept their ground game fluid all night.
Prophet finished the game with 68 yards on the ground and scored on a run from the 2 in the first quarter to take an early 7-0 lead. The Knights kept the ball on the ground the entire game and finished with 249 yards rushing.
Seth Evans finished as the Knights’ leading rusher with 101 yards, highlighted by a 50-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter on the first play from scrimmage.
Despite Johnson’s success on defense providing momentum swinging touchdowns, the Spartans still managed to move the ball well all night.
West Hall quarterback Shunquez Stephens finished the game 17-for-32 passing for 249 yards. His longest pass went to senior Jake Copeland for a 73-yard touchdown after Stephens eluded a sack and the Johnson defensive back broke on the ball attempting to intercept the pass.
Stephens also connected on a 25-yard touchdown pass to Will Edge on a fourth-and-20 late in the third period. Edge led West Hall receivers with eight catches for 107 yards.
Stephens also connected with his older brother, Marquise, for a 4-yard score in the first half.
Johnson’s win in its subregion opener sets the stage for next Friday night’s game against Gainesville (5-3, 1-1) at Billy Ellis Memorial Stadium. Last season, the Knights defeated the Red Elephants at City Park to keep their playoff hopes alive. If the Knights are able to repeat that result, their playoff chances look bright. Johnson would only need a win against either Pickens or Flowery Branch to assure a playoff spot.
"This Gainesville game is huge," Friel said. "We know they want this game also so we know we have to be ready to play."
West Hall is off next Friday, but plays host to Gainesville on Nov. 2 at Spartans Field.
Johnson 34, West Hall 18
West Hall 0 6 12 0—18
Johnson 7 0 7 20—34
JHS—Prophet 3 run (Madrigal kick) 4:13
WH—M. Stephens 4 pass from S. Stephens (kick blocked) :26.3
JHS—Prophet 2 run (kick good) 6:43
WH—Copeland 73 pass from S. Stephens (conversion failed) 3:47
WH—Edge 25 pass from S. Stephens (conversion failed) 1:46
JHS—Owens 80 fumble return (Duguay kick) 8:15
JHS—Evans 50 run (Madrigal run) 6:16
JHS—J. Wirsing 86 INT return (kick failed) 3:20
West Hall Johnson
First downs 17 16
Rushes-yards 30-64 41-249
Passing yards 268 0
Comp.-Att.-Int. 17-32-2 0-0-0
Total yards 332 249
Fumbles-lost 3-1 3-2
Punts-avg. 2-29 5-25.6
Penalties-yards 4-35 4-34
Rushing: Johnson, Rucker 6-41, Evans 11-101, Dudley 8-39, Prophet 16-68; West Hall, Drummond 6-25, M. Stephens 16-48, S. Stephens 8-(-9).
Passing: West Hall, Stephens 17-32-1 268
Receiving: West Hall, Edge 8-107, Gibson 5-55, Copeland 1-73, Stephens 1-12, Malone 2-21.