It seemed like everybody but Cullman quarterback Tyler Glenn threw a touchdown pass in Friday’s key Class 5A, Region 8 clash with Athens.
But the senior signal-caller did catch one — the winning one, in fact — a 7-yarder from wide receiver Auston Neal with 32 seconds on the clock to cap off a nail-biting 16-13 triumph over the Golden Eagles and secure a first-round playoff game at Oliver Woodard Stadium for the No. 9 Bearcats (7-1, 6-0).
Just when Athens appeared poised for the upset — the visitors took a 13-10 lead with 2:37 remaining on a 12-yard pass from Stevie Farmer to Durandall Williams — Cullman made it clear there was no quit in these Bearcats.
Starting at their own 31, the Black and Gold were quickly in a must-convert, fourth-and-12 situation before Glenn connected with Maison Goodwin for just enough — the down marker practically lined up with the tip of the football — to move the chains.
From there, it was smooth sailing, as Glenn hit Mason Jones for plays of 18, 27 and 7 yards to set the stage for the game-winning sequence. On the knockout blow, Glenn went in motion out right, running back Garrett Crider took a direct snap, briefly headed left and pitched the ball to Neal, who was sweeping right. The ball was quickly out of the wide receiver’s hands and into the quarterback’s, sending the Cullman sideline and its faithful crowd into a full-fledged frenzy.
Jones intercepted Athens’ last-ditch Hail Mary as time expired to seal the deal.
“We’ve been running that play all week, and I’ve just been excited and fired up,” Glenn said of the late heroics. “To be able to do something like that and get a first-round playoff game at home, it’s amazing.”
Added Neal: “It was incredible. That was probably the most fun I’ve ever had in a football game right there.”
Judging by the grin on his face following the tight contest, Bearcat coach Mark Britton seemed like he had a bit of fun, too. In the end, he didn’t care who tossed the final touchdown, just as long as his squad found a way to reach the end zone.
“It was a great play. Coach (Kenny) Gleaton had that play set up, super job,” Britton said. “It was a little bit risky, but in a game like this, you’ve got to take some risks.”
The Black and Gold’s first touchdown was just as thrilling as their last and also came from the arm of a player not named Glenn. In this case, it was Crider at halfback, who, on the first play of the fourth quarter, heaved a pass down the right sideline. Athens’ Derek Teague looked to be in position to potentially pick it off, but Cullman wide receiver Seth Donaldson reached over the defender, outmuscled Teague to secure possession and sprinted the rest of the way untouched for the 74-yard score.
“We’d been practicing that play all week, too,” Glenn said of Crider and Donaldson’s clutch play. “Garrett was like, ‘Do I need to keep my gloves on or not?’ Then he took his gloves off, chunked it as far as he could and Seth made an unbelievable play and somehow got in the end zone. I couldn’t be happier.”
Chayse Freeman’s extra point put the Bearcats up 10-6, not long after the Golden Eagles had taken a 6-3 lead on an 11-yard pass-and-catch between Farmer and QuaShawn Johnson.
Freeman nailed a field goal from 30 yards out with 4:20 left in the third quarter to finally break a 0-0 tie.
The Black and Gold defense held Athens to just 48 yards in the first half before the Golden Eagles got going in the second half to wind up with a respectable 171. The unit came through when it mattered most, though, picking up late sacks from Justin Patterson and Alex Martin.
On the former’s, Farmer escaped the clutches of the senior defensive lineman once and ran out of another tackle — only for Patterson, whose pursuit never slowed despite his initial attempt, to leap flying-squirrel style over the pile and take down the quarterback for a 12-yard loss.
“That kind of effort was the difference in this ballgame,” Britton said.
Glenn finished 26 of 40 for 250 passing yards. Nine of those attempts were pulled down by Jones for 122 yards, while 11 were roped in by Goodwin for 106 yards. Donaldson had three catches for 81 yards, most coming on his 74-yard touchdown.
Crider earned every bit of his 59 rushing yards on 16 carries against a stingy Athens’ D that made it hard for Cullman to do much in the ground game.
“It was kind of one of those games where everybody was contributing,” Britton said. “I’m real proud of the kids on both sides of the ball.”
Farmer closed out the night 18 of 31 with 114 passing yards, a pair of touchdowns and an interception to go along with a team-high 26 rushing yards. Tarik Malone caught six passes for 24 yards, while Harper Ward (35 yards) and Johnson (20) each had four receptions for the Golden Eagles (5-3, 3-3).
The win kept the Bearcats’ record spotless in region play, leaving next week’s showdown at No. 3 Muscle Shoals (8-0, 6-0) to decide the region championship. No matter the outcome, the Black and Gold can rest assured knowing they’ll be home when the postseason begins in three weeks.
“We’ve busted our butts every day all the way from June to right now,” Neal said. “It just means so much to come out here, compete like that, follow through and have success like we did.”