The Denmark Danes entered Friday night’s game with the Dawson County Tigers having outscored their two previous opponents by a total of 104 – 0 and they were stacked with power-five college level talent at quarterback, running back and wide receiver.
“This is not about them, it’s about us,” offensive coordinator Andy LeBlanc said. “It’s about you going out there and playing hard, fighting for yourself and your team.”
And fought the Tigers did, hard.
After both teams punted on their opening drives, the Danes put together a 60-yard drive that bogged down on the Dawson County 10-yard line. Facing fourth and one, the Danes made the decision to go for it and ran into the teeth of the Tigers defense, who drove the running back backwards, forcing a turnover on downs and shifting the first quarter momentum.
On the ensuing drive, quarterback Zach Holtzclaw escaped what appeared to be a certain sack and connected with Dakohta Sonnichsen, moving the ball to midfield. Running back Shawn Thomas moved the ball into the Denmark red zone with a pair of carries and then, Riley Herndon did something no one had done yet this season, he scored on the Danes from 13-yards out, giving Dawson County the early lead.
The Tigers defense shut down the next two Danes’ possessions as Maximos Moon seemed an ever present force in the Denmark backfield, forcing Auburn committed quarterback Aaron McLaughlin into a series of chaotic scrambles and bad passes that created the first turnover of the game, an interception by Tripp Caine to put the Tigers in excellent field position at the start of the second quarter.
“He’s a big guy, committed to a big school, and he is hard to take down,” Moon said. “But when you get him it feels really good.”
A pair of false start penalties derailed the drive, and the Tigers were forced to punt, giving the Danes the ball at their own 20-yard line. McLaughlin engineered a fast-paced, 80-yard drive to tie the game with just under six minutes remaining until half-time.
Isaiah Grindle electrified the crowd with a 98-yard kick return to the 2-yard line and the Tigers looked to be on the verge of scoring the go ahead touchdown when another pair of penalties, both questionable, one resulting in a Thomas touchdown being pulled off the board, pushed the Tigers backwards and the team settled for a 43-yard field goal from Caleb Bonesteel to re-take the lead.
Unfortunately for the Tigers, after the Dawson defense forced the Danes into third and 20 at their own 45-yard line, McLaughlin, once again under intense pressure, floated a 55-yard pass to Casey Gunn giving Denmark the lead heading into the locker room.
“We fought them hard the whole time,” head coach Sid Maxwell said. “I just hate that they got that big one on us at the end of the half.”
Dawson County took possession of the football to open the third quarter and continued to grind out the clock with a methodical running game designed to keep the Denmark offense on the bench, and it worked as the Danes only had one meaningful drive in the quarter which was put to a stop by a Herndon interception at the halfway mark.
Denmark began the fourth quarter with a field goal to extend their lead to 17-10 after a drive that started from their own 23-yard line was stopped cold by a Tigers defense that yielded almost no ground in the red zone all night.
“We installed a plan that fits within our system,” defensive coordinator Bradley Fowler said. “Not just for Denmark, but for the rest of the season.”
The final seven minutes of the game was a display of arm strength and talent from both quarterbacks as the team’s combined for five touchdowns and nearly 250 passing yards with the Tigers mounting an inspiring comeback attempt and the Danes desperately seeking to fight them off as the game suddenly featured a touchdown play, on average, once a minute.
Sadly, the Tigers last attempt ended with an interception deep in Dane territory and Denmark ran out the final minute to seal the win by a final score of 38-24.
“This was a test, a test of how good we can be,” Holtzclaw said. “We’ve got to build from it and move forward.”
The loss moved Dawson County to a 3-1 overall record and marked the end of non-regional games as the Tigers look forward to opening their 7-AAA schedule with their regional rivals the Lumpkin County Indians in Dahlonega on Friday, Sep. 27 with kick-off scheduled for 7:30 p.m.