By Kim West
Offensive miscues and empty trips to the red zone spoiled East Limestone’s home opener on a clear and cool Friday night as Russellville outlasted the Indians 19-15 in a Class 5A, Region 8 clash in front of a frenzied crowd at Phil Cavnar Field.
Russellville (1-2, 1-1), which started the season 0-2 for the first time in 16 years, overcame another standout performance by East Limestone’s Jordon Gandy. The all-purpose star scored on a kickoff, caught six passes for 66 yards, ran for a 33-yard gain and finished with more than 200 yards from punt and kick returns. He also punted twice, kicked an extra point and recovered a fumble.
The East defense forced three punts and a turnover in Russellville’s final four possessions in the second half, but the Indians stalled in three straight trips to the Golden Tigers’ side of the field due to dropped passes and long-yardage situations on third and fourth downs.
“We had momentum but the biggest thing for us is we got into the red zone three times and came away with no points,” said East coach Jeff Pugh. “But I thought we took a giant step forward tonight, regardless of the loss. I’m never going to say a loss is OK but I’m proud of how they fought.”
After East forced the Golden Tigers’ drive to stall at their own 22, Russellville opted to punt to Gandy, who returned it to the Golden Tigers’ 36.
Dhalquille Eichelberger jump-started the Indians’ drive with a 12-yard rumble and Brick Pugh capped the seven-play, 36-yard scoring drive by throwing a 12-yard strike to Witt Black in the end zone. Gandy tacked on the extra point to give East a 7-0 lead late in the first quarter.
Russellville answered on its ensuing drive after Reed Smith caught a 35-yard pass from Zack Garrison and Austin Hill barreled in for a 4-yard touchdown to make it 7-6 in the second quarter.
After a turnover on downs by East, Russellville took over at its own 33. Hill, who rushed six times for 49 yards on the drive, had a 24-yard scamper stopped by Gandy’s touchdown-saving tackle. Hill eventually scored on a 9-yard run to give the Golden Tigers a 12-7 lead with 4:38 left in the second.
East seized a 15-12 lead at halftime, thanks to a 95-yard kickoff return by the speedy and elusive Gandy. He started left, slipped through a tackle and then burst up the right sideline after getting a perimeter block from Brick Pugh, who ran in the two-point conversion.
On its second drive in the third, Russellville went on a 65-yard drive to score the only points of the second half. Garrison hit a quick 16-yard pass to Smith and Hill carried four times for 44 yards.
Garrison burst into the secondary and ran through an arm tackle to score on a 20-yard keeper to put the Golden Tigers ahead for good at 19-15. Clay McNatt hit the PAT to ensure East could not attempt a field goal to tie the score.
During much of the first half, Russellville used 5-foot-9-inch, 157-pound cornerback Shemar Hamilton in single coverage against the 6-foot-4-inch, 195-pound Gandy. After halftime, RHS rolled over a safety to help bottle up Gandy, who played a majority of the 139 snaps on special teams, offense and defense despite muscle cramps.
“We made some mistakes on formations on offense and defense in the first half but we came out in the second half and corrected them,” said Hill, a sophomore who ran for five of Russellville’s 11 first downs. “We just had to keep our heads up because they capitalized on our mistakes in the first half.”
Brick Pugh finished 15 of 26 for 170 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions and rushed 12 times for 77 yards. Black had five receptions for 65 yards and a touchdown.
Gandy and Nick Walsh both had fumble recoveries for East, and Josh Petty and DeAnte Griffith each had two tackles for a loss.
“I thought Brick grew up a lot tonight at the quarterback position and in becoming a leader,” Jeff Pugh said. “Jordon Gandy is one of the best high school football players in Alabama but we can’t just rely on him all of the time. Witt Black is a hard competitor, and he made some big plays for us.”
Hill ran 27 times for 160 yards and two scores. Garrison completed 7 of 12 for 104 yards with no interceptions and one rushing TD. Smith had six receptions for 80 yards, including grabs of 35, 12, 16 and 10 yards.
“My offensive line did a great job tonight and our wide receivers did a good job blocking downfield,” Hill said.
JJ Johnson and Jesse Vincent had interceptions for Russellville, with Jalen Scott, William Bendall, Jackson Bendall, Jared Thornton, Matthew Davidson and Tyrone Wilson each collecting tackles for a loss.
“The first game we played a good half, and the second game we didn’t play well,” said Gandy, who in only three games has scored five times on a pair of TD catches, a reverse, a kick return and an interception return. “We played a full game (Friday), and I think we improved.”
Both teams will continue region play in Week 4. East (0-3 overall, 0-2 Region 8), which plays four of its first five games on the road, will look to rebound at Lawrence County (1-2, 0-2). Russellville (1-2, 1-1), which improved to 5-1 all-time against East, will host West Point (1-2, 0-2).