Aside from a pair of big passing plays — one for 41 yards, another for 56 yards — the Eagles were able to contain the Wildcats, en route to a 31-14 victory in the Region 5AAAAAA opener for both teams.
“We talked about how athletic Wheeler was all week,” Svehla said. “We knew that, but I still think it surprised us a little bit how aggressive they were defensively. But it only took us a few plays to open our eyes. I thought our kids did a good job settling down.”
Etowah, 4-0 for the first time in six years, received the opening kickoff and settled for a 31-yard field goal by Quorleus Smith after the nine-play drive stalled. It was then that the Eagle defense got its first chance on the field.
A pair of completions for 1 yard was all Wheeler (2-2, 0-1) quarterback Elijah Staley could manage during that three-and-out drive, as the Wildcats punted for the first time.
With John Oliver, Raishod Devezin and Brandon Engle moving the ball on the ground, Etowah quickly positioned itself to score. The touchdown came on an 8-yard pass from Oliver to Keith Gordon, and Smith’s kick made it 10-0 at the end of the first quarter.
Wheeler turned the ball over after coming up short on a fourth-down conversion, allowing the Etowah offense to go back to work at their own 45.
Much like the first touchdown drive, the Eagles relied on their running game. Oliver picked up a key first down, and Engle followed with an 8-yard run to get the Eagles up to the Wheeler 30. On the next play, Engle got the ball again and broke a pair of arm tackles as he crossed into the end zone.
Trailing 17-0, Wheeler was finally able to put a drive together.
The Wildcats picked up their first first down of the night with 9:16 remaining in the first half. With Staley connecting with Jacobi Green on a series of passes, they moved into Eagle territory. After picking up a first down on an 8-yard pass to Green, Staley went deep on his next attempt and found a wide-open Devontae Jackson in the end zone for the 33-yard touchdown.
The score remained 17-7 until Oliver was able to scramble through the middle of the Wheeler defense for a 33-yard touchdown run on the opening play of the fourth quarter.
After Wheeler turned the ball over on downs again midway through the fourth quarter, Etowah again took advantage. Oliver found Noah Dye for a 23-yard completion before a pair of runs by Engle set up a 1-yard run by Gordon, which put the Eagles up 31-7.
Wheeler put together a final scoring drive by once again using a long pass play. The 56-yard pass from Staley to Billy Polakowski made it 31-14, but the Wildcats got no closer.
Engle led Etowah with 22 carries for 151 yards and a touchdown. Oliver had 16 carries for 82 yards and a touchdown, while he was 5-for-10 passing for 49 yards.
Svehla tipped his hat to the Eagle defense, which allowed just eight first downs. The Wildcats were held to less than 100 rushing yards, and aside from the pair of long passes, the offense was kept in check.
“Their quarterback is a great player,” Svehla said. “They have some receivers that are scary. I thought we contained them really, really well.”
Jackson led Wheeler with 13 carries for 42 yards. Staley was 18-for-33 passing for 230 yards and two touchdowns. Green caught 11 passes for 122 yards, and Polakowski had three receptions for 74 yards.