"It was just a physical ball game," Wheeler coach Mike Collins said. "It always comes down to a couple of plays here and there... I just have to go in and do a better job of preparing my guys."
In the first half, Etowah and Wheeler were tied at 7-all with less than 1 minute to go. With the ball inside at its own 20 and 51 seconds to go before halftime, the Wildcats (3-4, 1-2) elected to attempt to drive the ball down the field. On its first play, Wheeler quarterback Elijah Staley threw a pass down the near sideline that was intercepted by Etowah safety Ryan Wilborn that was returned to the Wildcats 13.
Etowah's Ryan Hopper converted a 43-yard field goal before halftime to give Etowah (4-3, 2-1) a 10-7 lead that it would not relinquish in the second half. On the first possession of the second half, Etowah's Tre Ashford intercepted Staley's third down pass, which looked to be an attempt to throw the ball away.
Four plays later, Etowah went ahead 17-7 on Etowah running back Devonte Wheaton's second touchdown run of the game.
"Those are critical when you play a region team," Etowah coach Bill Stewart said of the Eagles' three interceptions. "Turnovers are a lot of times the difference, and so we won the battle tonight. And so, we haven't been winning the battle. It means a lot to win the turnover battle."
For the game, Wheaton finished with 241 yards on 22 carries for two touchdowns. As a whole, Etowah rushed for 304 yards. Included in Wheaton's performance was a 94-yard touchdown run in the first half that gave the Eagles' their first score of the game.
"(A couple of holes in the line) is all he needs," Collins said of Wheaton. "He's a great back, and, if he gets a crease and gets into the secondary, then he can get past the secondary."
To add injury to insult, Staley was knocked out of the game after taking a hit on an incomplete pass on the next possession and left the game with an apparent injury to his left game. Staley did not return, and was replaced by Taylor Wolf.
With its play in the first half combined with its play last week, the Wildcats showed that they could play with tougher competition that they could in the past. How close are they to picking up a win against the perennial playoff contenders in Region 5AAAAA?
"I think we're getting there," Collins said. "We took a couple of strides over the last couple of weeks and we'll see at what point we can compete.
"I'm proud of my guys. We got a couple of key stops in the game that showed a lot of character. We're going to go in and build on those positives."