By Jonathan Deal
It was a story of missed opportunities for Athens Friday night in a 41-14 loss to Cullman. While the Golden Eagles could not convert on their chances, Cullman scored three of its first-half touchdowns directly from turnovers to put the game out of reach early.
Cullman quarterback Zach Crocker completed 20 of 30 pass attempts for 203 yards, a touchdown and three interceptions. Most of Crocker’s work was done in the first half, when he threw 23 times, including the interceptions and touchdown pass.
“We had a few turnovers early, but overall I thought our quarterback played well,” said Cullman head coach Mark Britton. “I thought our ability to convert third and longs was the difference in the game. That and our defense played a great game.”
At times, Cullman’s passing attack looked unstoppable as Crocker connected with the Bearcats’ pair of six-foot, five-inch receivers with ruthless efficiency. After Athens muffed a punt near midfield on its first possession, the senior QB scored put Cullman on the board first on a 27-yard touchdown to Troy Forrest. Forrest led all Cullman receivers with eight catches for 80 yards and a touchdown.
“They used a lot of quick reads and had some physical receivers,” Athens said safety Johnnie Anderson. “If you don’t get a bump on them, they beat you every time.”
On the visitors’ next possession, Crocker led Cullman down the field on a 13-play drive to set up Drew Johnson for a 1-yard touchdown. Crocker’s pass to Forrest on the successful two-point conversion made it 14-0 Cullman minutes into the second quarter.
Following Johnson’s touchdown, the teams traded turnovers throughout the second quarter. Beginning with Athens quarterback William Mathews fumble at the 47-yard-line, the teams combined for five turnovers in a five-minute span during the second quarter. Braley Chambers slowed the Cullman passing game with an interception at the Athens 25-yard line, but the next play essentially put the game out of reach for Athens.
Cullman linebacker Joseph Gable picked off Mathews and returned it 31 yards for a score to make it 20-0. The teams traded interceptions again when Athens’ Bolton Patton picked off a pass at midfield followed by another Mathews’ interception, this time to Josh Reed.
Cullman took full advantage of the good field position and Garrett Crider made it 27-0 Cullman with less than four minutes to play until halftime.
Following a quick-three-and-out Athens punter Adam Harvey pinned Cullman down at its 1-yard-line from a 60-yard punt. Jonathan Cain picked off Crocker for a third time in the quarter to set up Athens’ only offensive score of the game. With one minute to play until halftime, Mathews floated a ball to Jordan Campbell for a 27-yard score.
Cullman put any hope of an Athens comeback to bed on the Bearcats’ first possession of the half. On a second-and-goal play from the 8-yard line, Crocker threw a quick pass to Mason Jones behind the line of scrimmage. Jones then pitched the ball to Crider, who ran it in from 10 yards out on the hook-and-lateral play.
“They executed really well,” said Athens head coach Allen Creasy. “We had too many turnovers and didn’t take advantage of the turnovers we got. We’ve had a tough year. We’ve just got to continue to fight.”
Athens added a late touchdown when Derek Teague returned a punt 61 yards for a score. Cullman (7-1, 5-1) host Muscle Shoals (8-0, 6-0) next week for the 5A Region 8 championship. Athens (1-7, 1-5) host Lawrence County (0-8, 0-6) for its homecoming.