The Spartans (4-3, 1-2 Region 7B-AAA) watched the Knights erase a 21-point lead in the waning minutes of the fourth quarter, only to stop Johnson (1-6, 0-2) on a go-ahead, 2-point conversion attempt with 20 seconds left. In a game full of offense, West Hall junior linebacker Ishmail Nuckles sacked Johnson’s Anthony Prophet as the seconds ticked off the clock.
"People around here will be talking about this game for a long time," said West Hall coach Mike Newton, who won for the
first time in the series. "A win any time is still a win."
West Hall took advantage of two Johnson interceptions and turned them into 14 points, which proved to be the difference.
If there has been a game like this ever played in Hall County, no one could remember it.
"This is the game that we knew we had to shine in," said Spartans sophomore quarterback Shunquez Stephens, who threw for 379 yards and five touchdowns. "This is the Battle of Oakwood. We weren’t going to back to West Hall without winning this game. To be up three touchdowns and then see it almost go away, it’s crazy. Our defense rose up when it needed to. We were fighting way too hard for this not to win it."
The battle turned into a shootout. The teams combined for 992 yards, by far the most ever recorded in the 14-year series. Neither team had scored more than 47 points against the other, and Johnson’s 34 points last year set a record that lasted just shy of a year.
"We knew this would be a high-scoring game," said West Hall tight end Kyle Weatherly, who caught five passes for 66 yards and a fourth-quarter touchdown. "Both teams have high-powered offenses. But I didn’t think it would be anything like this. We had some trouble stopping their running game and they had a hard time stopping our passing."
Marquise Stephens, a senior running back, had 237 yards of total offense and scored three touchdowns. Younger brother Shunquez hit three different receivers for touchdowns.
"We did a good job of picking up the blitzes, and Shunquez did a good job of finding the hot routes and hitting those short passes," Newton said. "We still have some things to look at next week."
On the other side, Johnson racked up 473 yards rushing. Mantevius Rucker had 162 yards and two touchdowns. Mick Shannon ran for 155 yards and two fourth-quarter touchdowns including an 84-yard punt return for a score with 3:21 left.
"I’ve never been more proud of our kids’ effort and desire," said Johnson coach Paul Friel. "Our offense was pretty good. Defensively we were horrible, but I’m the defensive coordinator so I’ll take that blame. In the end we made too many mistakes but I’m so proud of our guys. They kept fighting. West Hall did a good job of hitting the hot passes and finding our weaknesses. We’ll come back Monday and keep working on the fundamentals."
The scoring started early. West Hall led 14-7 before three minutes were gone. Marquise Stephens turned a screen pass from brother Shunquez into a 74-yard touchdown on West Hall’s third play.
Johnson marched down the field and tied the game on Rucker’s 8-yard run to cap a five-play drive. The game stayed tied for all of 14 seconds thanks to Terrell Penland’s 86-yard kickoff return for a score. Before anyone could eat half a hot dog, West Hall led 14-7.
West Hall increased its lead to 21-7 on a 21-yard pass from Shunquez Stephens to Penland. Scott Eichler, who was a perfect 8-for-8 on extra points, intercepted a Johnson pass and returned it to the 30-yard line.
Back came Johnson with a 10-play, 80-yard drive that ended with a 6-yard rushing touchdown from Rucker.
After the teams exchanged punts to open the second quarter, West Hall took advantage of a short field with a 9-yard touchdown pass from Shunquez Stephens to Marquise Stephens.
Shannon came back two possessions later to draw the Knights to 28-21 on a 1-yard run with 53 seconds left in the first half. West Hall ran its spread offense to perfection and went 62 yards in four plays and 30 seconds. Rodney Gibson’s 5-yard catch from Shunquez Stephens, plus Eichler’s kick, gave the Spartans a 35-21 halftime lead.
Gage Brown snagged West Hall’s second interception on Johnson’s opening drive of the second half. It set up Marquise Stephens’ 8-yard touchdown run to increase the Spartans’ lead to 42-21.
But Johnson answered again with Rucker scoring from 4 yards out to cut the gap back to 14 points.
The teams exchanged touchdowns late in the third quarter with Marquise Stephens scoring from 3 yards out, only to see Chris Cannon catch a 9-yard touchdown pass from Prophet with no time left in the quarter.
Johnson outscored the Spartans 20-7 in the fourth quarter. After Weatherly’s 5-yard scoring grab with 7:35 left, Johnson scored 20 points in 5:02. Shannon scored on a 35-yard run and then sent the crowd into a frenze after his punt return with 3:21 left. The Knights recovered an onside kick and drove 43 yards on seven plays including Prophet’s 15-yard scramble on fourth-and-15. Three plays later he hit Cannon in the end zone for a 11-yard score. Johnson elected to go for the win and 2 points but West Hall stuffed the go-ahead attempt in the middle of the line.
"I felt like we had to do it," Friel said. "We couldn’t stop them defensively and we had to try it."
NOTES: The 1-point winning margin was the closest in the series since a 20-20 tie in 1997. ... At one point, Shunquez Stephens hit seven straight passes in the first quarter for 137 yards. ... The Knights went over the 100-yard mark on the ground — Rucker, Shannon and Prophet (133 yards). ... The teams combined for just three punts. ... Johnson had 21 first downs compared to West Hall’s 13. ... Before Friday’s game, neither team had combined for more than 52 points in a game (2007). Prior to that, the highest combined scoring output was 48 points in 2001 (a 42-6 West Hall victory).