Offensive lineman are generally a nameless and faceless group, the mass of humanity that no one really notices unless one of them makes a mistake.
But Friday night, one couldn't help but notice Athens' offensive line, as the Golden Eagles dominated the line of scrimmage and the run game to take a 28-19 win over Hartselle in both teams' Class 6A, Region 7 opener.
“I can't say enough about them,” Athens coach Cody Gross said. “They're the unsung heroes. When you think about an offensive lineman, that's probably the most unselfish human on the planet. Can you imagine playing a game, and you never get to touch the ball? They did a great job tonight and I'm very proud of them.”
Athens' offensive line of Tommy White, Jack Rigsby, Isaiah Orr, A.J. Horton, Caden Shoulders and Josiah Trotman was so dominant, along with blocking fullback Jack Tregoning, the Golden Eagles didn't even attempt a pass in the second half, and still scored two touchdowns and were able to run the clock out on their final possession after Hartselle had closed to within nine points.
The biggest drive of the game came after Hartselle's Bryan Munoz kicked a 23-yard field goal on its opening possession of the third quarter following a 7-minute drive to close Athens' lead to 14-13.
The Golden Eagles came out in a different power formation and proceeded to rip off run after run, capping the drive off with a Julius Mayberry 49-yard touchdown run with 2:28 remaining in the quarter.
“We came out in a different formation we had not shown, and didn't show it in the first half,” Gross said. “We saved it for the second half. I think that helped us. We were able to stay in one formation and run just one play, and that was effective until the end of the game.”
Hartselle threw three incompletions and failed on a fake punt on its next possession, which gave Athens the ball at the Tigers' 31-yard line. The Golden Eagles needed just five plays to score, with Jaelen Cates taking it in the end zone from five yards out on the first play of the fourth quarter to put Athens up 28-13.
“That one drive we ran power six times in a row right down their throat,” White said. “Anytime you can run power that many times and they can't stop it, it feels great for an offensive lineman. They knew it was coming every play, and they still couldn't stop it.”
Hartselle scored on its next possession on a Cal George 1-yard touchdown to cut the lead to nine points, and had a chance to pull closer after Athens fumbled a handoff attempt on the first play of its next possession.
The Tigers drove inside the Golden Eagles' 25-yard line, but George was sacked by linebacker Heath Carden on fourth down to preserve the two-possession lead. Athens was then able to pick up two first downs and run the clock out.
The win broke a 14-game losing streak to Hartselle. The last time Athens had beaten the Tigers prior to Friday was the quarterfinals of the 2006 Class 5A playoffs.
“(The streak) is something we've been stressing all week,” White said. “We didn't want to lose to them again. It's a big, big thing to get a win over them.”
Athens previous two games against Hartselle saw the Tigers jump out to big early leads. That wasn't the case Friday, as the Golden Eagles got on the scoreboard first after a Jaylen Gilbert interception put Athens in great field position at the Tigers' 42-yard line. Jordan Scott capped off the drive with a 5-yard touchdown run to give the Eagles a 7-0 lead midway through the first quarter.
Hartselle scored the next 10 points, as Munoz hit a 28-yard field goal late in the first quarter and George threw a 12-yard touchdown pass to Brinten Barclay early in the second.
However, Scott gave Athens a lead it would not relinquish when he scampered 36 yards for a touchdown with 5:45 left in the first half.
Mayberry led Athens with 88 yards and a touchdown on 10 carries, while Cates had 85 yards and a score on 18 carries and Scott had 83 yards and two touchdowns on 10 carries.
As the clock ran out on the Athens victory, the Golden Eagles players celebrated a little harder than they would for a normal regular-season win. That's how much breaking the streak meant to them.
“It's good to get that monkey off our backs,” Gross said of ending the streak. “Hartselle has got a great program, and had 14 wins in a row against us. It was time for that to end, and I'm just so proud of our guys.”