“I think it went really well,” said Wheeler quarterback Ryles Kirkland. “We looked good and had real fun (Friday).”
Kirkland started the scoring with a 27-yard touchdown run in the first quarter, but the game changed early in the second on a play that couldn’t have been scripted better for Wheeler (1-0).
On second-and-long deep in Wheeler territory, Harland Howell caught a short pass but ran into Duluth defenders. The ball was stripped out and went forward, where Tabius Padgett was waiting.
“These young men deserve some breaks and we got a big one (Friday),” Wheeler coach Mike Collins said. “That funny shaped ball bounces all kind of ways and we were fortunate it bounced our way tonight.”
The way for Padgett was wide-open and he raced 60 yards for a 14-0 lead.
“The ball just didn’t bounce our way,” said Duluth coach Jason Conner. “And it’s hard for kids to bounce back from that.”
Duluth (0-1) had trouble staying out of its own way, committing four penalties, including three personal fouls, that gave Wheeler first downs. It was more than enough for Kirkland, who rushed for 81 yards and completed 9-of-16 passes for 161 yards and an 81-yard touchdown to start the fourth quarter.
“(Kirkland) is so much improved over last year,” Conner said. “His ability to throw the football has come a long way.”
It showed on the touchdown pass, a strike to a slanting Benaiah Franklin, who broke away from a defender and raced in for the score.
“(Kirkland has) put in a ton of work with them and he did a good job tonight,” Collins said. “But you always want to improve every week, so the goal is for him to be better next week.”
Duluth got on the scoreboard in the fourth quarter when quarterback Thad Bell completed a long drive with a 5-yard touchdown to Nyles Preston. Duluth recovered the ensuing onside kick, but fumbled the ball away two plays later.
“It’s hard to win a football game in the state of Georgia,” Collins said. “So anytime you get one, you have to enjoy it.”