Friday's matchup between Athens and Cullman looked as if it would be a tough battle between two of the three best teams in Class 6A, Region 8. Instead, it was a complete beatdown.
Athens dominated the game in all phases in a 28-0 victory that puts them in position to potentially win a region championship.
“It was a complete win, a complete game by our guys,” Athens coach Cody Gross said. “Our defense has been playing great lately, and the offense made some plays. I'm just really proud of our players. They prepare well. I can't say enough about my assistant coaches. They do a great job of game planning, and I'm just trying not to screw us up.”
Athens' defense shut down Cullman's wing-T offense, holding the Bearcats to 121 total yards, including just 82 rushing yards.
Gross said he was concerned about stopping Cullman's offense, as it is one the Golden Eagles don't see much of.
“It's so hard to prepare for that,” he said. “I was scared to death all week. We had trouble with a couple of plays in practice all week, because you can't give a look at the speed they run it at. But we've got some experience back there. I thought we did a good job of stopping the interior run game. Overall, I thought our guys on defense did a heck of a job.”
Cullman's only scoring opportunity came after they recovered an Athens fumble at the Golden Eagles' 30-yard line early in the first quarter. However, the Golden Eagles defense allowed Cullman to gain just eight yards, and a 39-yard field goal attempt sailed wide left.
Only one other Cullman drive made it past Athens' 45-yard line, and the Bearcats were forced to punt eight times.
Athens, meanwhile, had no trouble moving the ball. After a bit of a slow start, the Golden Eagles moved the ball up and down the field, finishing the game with 401 yards of total offense, 173 passing and 228 rushing.
After a scoreless first quarter, Athens opened the scoring early in the second when Jaylen Gilbert capped off an 80-yard drive with a 3-yard touchdown plunge.
Gilbert scored his second touchdown a few minutes later when he caught a 16-yard scoring pass from Jordan Scott.
Athens took a 14-0 lead into halftime and put the game away in the third quarter. The Golden Eagles received the second-half kickoff and quickly went to work. A 27-yard run by Gilbert put Athens in scoring position, and Scott capped the drive off with a 7-yard touchdown pass to Zach Siewic.
Cullman's next drive ended when Cam Anderson intercepted a pass. Athens started the drive from its own 12 but quickly drove 88 yards for a score that put the game completely out of reach.
A 35-yard run by Scott, and Scott's 37-yard pass to Jaden Jude put the ball inside the 20. Scott ended the drive with his third touchdown pass of the night, this one a 10-yard strike to A'Vonte Thompson.
Scott finished the game 16-of-18 for 173 yards and three touchdowns. Gilbert had 136 rushing yards and 42 receiving yards, while Jude had 83 yards receiving.
“That dude is an absolute winner,” Gross said of his senior quarterback. “He cares deeply about this team. He's one of my favorite guys I've ever coached in my life. He's a fierce competitor, he's super smart and he cares about this team so much. He was hurting at the half because he didn't think he finished the half well. He thought he let his team down, and that's special.”
Athens (6-2 overall, 5-1 region) can win the region championship next Friday with a win over Decatur combined with a Cullman win over Muscle Shoals. Should Athens beat Decatur and Muscle Shoals beat Cullman, the Golden Eagles would finish runner-up in the region.
Gross said his players can't worry about results of other games. Their responsibility is to beat Decatur and let the other results fall where they may.
“We've got to get ready for the Red Raiders,” Gross said. “Whatever happens over there (in the Muscle Shoals-Cullman game) happens. We've got to take care of business and that's going to be our focus.”