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Hartselle’s Trent Wrights pulls down a 20-yard pass from Parker Sawyer late in the third quarter of the Tigers game with Cullman. Special to the Enquirer/James Meadows

Hartselle’s fourth quarter comeback comes up short in loss to Cullman

The Hartselle Tigers, who were dominated for three quarters, found their stride in the fourth quarter but came up short in their 30-20 loss to the Cullman Bearcats.

“We have played two of the better teams in North Alabama in Austin and Cullman to start the season,” said Hartselle coach Bryan Moore. “Cullman will be a hard out when the playoffs get here.”

The Bearcats used a physical rushing attack and stout defense to build a 23-0 lead through three quarters.

The Cullman rushing attack, led by Jaylen Hughey, a 6’2, 240lb running back committed to the University of South Alabama, finished the game with 230 yards on 60 carries. Hughey finished the game with 159 yards rushing and three touchdowns on 33 carries. He also had a 20-yard touchdown pass to Nick Glass to put the Bearcats up 16-0 right before halftime.

On the other side of the ball, the Cullman defense, who had shut out their previous two opponents, held the Tigers to only 9 yards through two quarters and the majority of the third.

Following a Cullman touchdown that extended the lead to 23-0 with 1:41 left in the third quarter, the Tigers offense finally found some footing.

“We continued to fight despite trailing 23-0 heading into the fourth quarter,” Moore said. “We have to find a way to get started earlier in the game.”

Hartselle’s Payton Sawyer drove the Tigers 74 yards in 8 plays for their first touchdown as Mookie Moore scored on a one-yard run to cap off the drive. Sawyer completed five passes for 62 yards. He connected with Izayah Fletcher on two passes for 29 yards while Trent Wright had one reception for 20 yards, and Sage Smothers had a catch for 14 yards. A 23-yard pass to Fletcher on 3rd & 14 set up the touchdown run to make the score 23-6.

The Hartselle defense forced Cullman into their first 3-and-out of the game to give the ball back to the Tigers’ offense with 8:24 left in the fourth.

After building a little momentum on their previous drive, Hartselle used a two-play, 63-yard drive in 30 seconds to score their second touchdown of the game and cut the lead to 23-13. Sawyer connected with Wright for a 15-yard pass to start the drive. Following a 15-yard penalty, the Tigers had the ball at the Cullman 33-yard line. On the next play, Fletcher hauled in a 33-yard pass from Sawyer for a touchdown.

The Tigers defense rose to the occasion again as they stopped the Bearcats on a fourth-down play from their 11-yard line. Cullman was able to take 4:45 off the clock on their 12-play, 42-yard drive.

The Tigers couldn’t get anything going on the drive as they ended up losing nine yards before a fourth-down pass from Sawyer intended for Coleman Mizell was batted down by a Cullman defended.

The Bearcats capitalized on the turnover with Hughey’s third touchdown of the game, from two yards out, to give Cullman a 30-13 lead with 2:40 left in the fourth quarter.

With 2:32 left in the game, the Tigers started their next possession at the 36-yard line. JT Blackwood, who missed the previous two games, replaced Sawyer at quarterback to get some playing time.

Blackwood led the Tigers on a seven-play, 64-yard scoring drive to cut the Cullman lead to 30-20 with 57.6 seconds to go. He completed five out of eight passes for 64 yards, including a 25-yard scoring strike to Fletcher.

“JT was a pleasant surprise for us tonight, considering he hasn’t practiced in more than two weeks,” said Moore. “He led a beautiful two-minute drive that ended with a great pass to Izayah Fletcher for a touchdown.”

The Tigers (1-2) will travel to Decatur on Friday night for a Class 6A, Region 8 game. The Red Raiders (0-3) are coming off a 24-12 loss to Muscle Shoals.

“We are taking things one week at a time,” said Moore. “We will focus on Decatur and getting better this week.”

Class 6A, Region 8 Scores

Athens 50 – Columbia 6

Buckhorn 43 – Hazel Green 7

Muscle Shoals 24 – Decatur 12