Hartselle defense, kicking game hold off Athens

Defense and field position were the order of the day for No. 5 Hartselle on Friday night at J.P. Cain Stadium.

The Tigers (3-0, 2-0) got an outstanding effort from punter Riley Wiggins and the stingy Hartselle defense kept the Athens Eagles (2-1, 1-1) out of the end zone in Hartselle’s 14-6 region win.

Riley Wiggins did his job keeping the Golden Eagles backed up the whole game. He finished the day with a 38.1 average on nine punts, six of which were downed inside the 20.

The senior punter said he didn’t feel any pressure during the night.

“I just do what I do best – I just get the ball, kick it and get it off,” Wiggins said. “It was a big game. The change in field position helped us a lot.”

Senior defensive lineman Zac Pershin agreed.

“Field position is everything,” said Pershin, who recorded a sack and a fumble recovery. “That just gives us a lot of confidence to go down there and get the stop. We did that just about every time.”

Head coach Bob Godsey said he didn’t have much of a choice on Friday night. Senior running back Masio Stover was out with an injury from last week. Junior D’Andre Mack had to leave the game with an injury.

That left the Tigers to rely on its defense, whose starters have yet to give up a touchdown.

“Because we had a lead, I felt comfortable with our defense,” Godsey said. “So, we were punting it down there, trying to get some first downs. I knew this guy right here (pointing to senior linebacker Waid Miller) would take care of it.”

The Tiger defense held Athens to 235 yards on 61 offensive plays, compared to 216 yards for Hartselle on just 48 plays.

Athens had 10 first downs compared to just three for Hartselle.

Miller led the way 17 tackles while Jorden Robinson finished with 11 tackles and key interception in the second half.

Lane Anders and Kris Doss also had nine stops each while Connor Shelton and Caleb Finn had eight tackles each. Pershin and Holden Langston finished with six tackles each while Toby Swims and Dakota Youngblood each had five tackles.

Most of Hartselle’s yards came in the first quarter. The Tigers capped off a seven-play, 78-yard drive with Jake Tiffin’s five-yard pass to Zeth Malcolm for the touchdown. Jack Waterman’s extra point gave Hartselle a 7-0 with 8:42 left in the first quarter.

After a three-and-out, Mack took a short screen pass from Tiffin and out-ran everyone to the end zone for a 78-yard scoring play. At the 5:11 mark of the first quarter, Hartselle led 14-0.

That play would be Mack’s last for the game. From that point, Hartselle would gain just 71 yards the rest of the way and didn’t convert another third down.

However, that wasn’t a problem for the Tiger defense, even though they had to play most of the second half.

“We started to feel a little tired, but everyone just picked each other up,” Pershin said. “We love getting big stops for our team. We love being out there in clutch situations.”

Athens did cash in on two huge pass plays. Stephen Watkins found a wide open Terrance Watkins for a 55-yard gain with 30 seconds left in the first half.

However, Hartselle held the Eagles out of the end zone, forcing a 30-yard Bram McGrady field goal as time expired in the first half.

All the Golden Eagles could muster out of a 44-yard pass from Watkins to Johnnie Anderson was a 23-yard field goal with 9:02 left in the third quarter.

Hartselle wasn’t able to move the ball much over the next few drives, but Wiggins gave Athens a long field time-and-time again.

He said there’s nothing special to what he does. He just spends 10 minutes at the beginning of every practice punting the ball and then more time at the end of practice.

“I just go and kick it,” Wiggins said. “If we’re inside a certain yardage, I just go for my height and putting a good spiral on it.”

Athens had its best field position of the night on its final drive. The Golden Eagles intercepted a Hartselle pass at the Eagle 5 and returned it to the 38-yard line.

They drove all the way to the Hartselle 15-yard line with 51 seconds left in the game. Athens went no further, as Jaylan Jackson tipped away the Golden Eagles’ last gasp on fourth-and-10.

“We got down there in the red zone and needed a big stop,” Pershin said. “We always have big plays on defense… I think our defense is going to hold up. I think we have a solid defense.”

The Tigers will travel to Cullman next week a region showdown with the Bearcats (3-0, 2-0).

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