After coming off a high-scoring affair against Wesleyan, Dawson County football’s vaunted defense returned to its familiar form against Gilmer’s option offense in the regular-season home finale for the Tigers.
Neither team could find the end zone in the first half, but Dawson scored 17 points in the third quarter en route to a 17-7 victory that set them up for the de facto Region 7-3A title game against Lumpkin County next week.
Whether it was the frontline pressure of Cade Adams and Kevin Haymond, the quick feet Nelson or anyone else in between, the Tigers defense neutralized a usually potent Gilmer rushing attack.
“We did our reads and keys, didn’t give up the big play, and played responsible football,” head coach Sid Maxwell said. “Any time you go play [against] the option, it’s tough to be disciplined. Coach Woodall had them ready tonight. All the way to the end they were fighting every snap.”
Coming into the matchup, Gilmer was in need of a win after a turnover-laden game the previous week in an upset loss to Pickens.
Knowing that Gilmer’s offense — which had averaged well over 200 rushing yards per game this season — would be hungry for yardage, Dawson had no intention of underestimating the Bobcats.
Both offenses intended to score early on, showing aggression with fourth down attempts in the first quarter.
But both defenses were up to the task and kept each other scoreless for entire first half.
Just when the Tigers needed a spark, they got one courtesy of Kenny Nelson, who took the opening kickoff of the second half nearly 75 yards to the end zone.
From that point, Dawson’s defense would keep Gilmer far back in their own territory to set up the Tigers offense with good field position.
A 34-yard field goal by Dom LeBlanc followed up by a 39-yard touchdown run by Elijah Smith put Dawson up 17-0 with over four minutes left in the third quarter.
The Tigers would have one additional scoring chance early in the fourth quarter, going deep into the red zone. But a fourth down stop by Gilmer would give them a chance to mount a comeback attempt with over 10 minutes left in the game.
While the Bobcats were accustomed to gaining big chunks of yardage with their offense, Dawson prevented any of those large gains from happening.
Gilmer would gradually move down the field, but a time-consuming drive left less than one minute left on the clock by the time they scored a touchdown.
The Tigers would recover the ensuing onside kick and went into victory formation to celebrate a 5-0 record in Region 7-3A and 7-2 record overall.
“Once we got up three scores we were making sure we didn’t make a mistake,” Maxwell said. “A team like [Gilmer] will play really hard. That offense is tough to stop but it's also tough to come from behind with.”
Smith led the way with 72 rushing yards while Kade Moledor picked up 59 yards on the ground.
Looking ahead to next week’s Battle of Highway 9, the Indians just had their highest-scoring game of the season.
While Dawson and Gilmer battled in a low-scoring tussle, Lumpkin and White County combined for 70 points at halftime. Lumpkin would eventually win 56-35.
The 7-1 Indians are in the midst of a massive turnaround season under first-year head coach Heath Webb.
Webb and his coaching staff have helped unlock the potential of a team that had combined for three wins in the previous three seasons.
Led by junior running back Mason Sullens and senior quarterback Cooper Scott, Lumpkin has scored fewer than 27 points on just one occasion — in their lone loss to Wesleyan.
Next Friday, that electric offense will play host to the region’s best defense in a clash for region glory. The only scenario in which that game would not be for the region title is if Lumpkin were upset by a 1-7 West Hall team the next week.
“We just have to go out with each player doing their job and execute,” Maxwell said. “You can’t worry about what you’re playing for, you worry about the play and make that play and the next one.”