MARIETTA — It was well into the second half before Wheeler found a rhythm, but once it was established, the Wildcats came back with a vengeance.
Wheeler beat Lassiter 13-12 on Friday at Corky Kell Stadium on Friday night and stayed well in the race for a playoff position from Region 6AAAAAA.
Trailing 12-0 entering the fourth quarter, Wheeler (2-3, 2-1) earned the comeback victory behind big plays on offense and a stifling defense. The Wildcats scored 13 unanswered points in the final 10 minutes.
“All we needed was one electrifying play to happen, and after that, you could see our sideline and the crowd immediately got back involved,” Wheeler coach Bryan Love said. “We knew, at some point, it was going to finally break, and once the weather broke, we were able to get some things we had worked on in practice.”
Wheeler quarterback Alex Stack was just 3-for-14 passing for 6 yards entering the final quarter, but two big throws turned the game around.
Trailing 12-0, Stack found Marc Essley down the left sideline for a 32-yard gain. Then, and on the next play, he hit Devin Clark on a 42-yard gain down to the 1-yard line before Taylor Smith carried it in to cut the lead to 12-7.
Stack completed four of his final six passes and finished 7-for-20 for 97 yards, while Justus Savage finished as Wheeler’s leading rusher with 47 yards on 12 carries.
“It felt good to finally get it downfield,” Stack said. “Everything started clicking after that.”
With 8 minutes remaining, Wheeler took the ball back after forcing a Lassiter punt and promptly marched 41 yards in eight plays. On third down from the 8-yard line, Stack connected with Jordan McInnis for the go-ahead score on a slant across the middle.
The 2-point conversion was unsuccessful, but the momentum had shifted.
Playing in constant rain throughout the first half, the teams struggled to move the football. There were six fumbles — three for each side — and completions in the passing game were few and far between. The game was also plagued by penalties — 12 for each side — and turnovers, but it was Lassiter (1-4, 1-2) which struck first just before halftime.
Dixon Noland ran the ball in from 11 yards out with less than 1 minute to play in the second quarter, and the Trojans took a 7-0 lead into halftime.
The second half started out just as poorly for Wheeler as an errant snap on a punt attempt gave Lassiter the ball on the Wheeler 10-yard line. The Wildcats’ defense held, however, and Drew Campbell nailed a 26-yard field goal, giving Lassiter a 10-0 lead midway through the third.
The defensive stand turned out to be a turning point as Wheeler held Lassiter to 35 yards in the second half and shut down the Trojans’ triple-option attack.
“We were making simple mistakes in the first half, and we fixed them in the second half,” Wheeler defensive lineman Kendre Oliver said. “We always try to keep each other going and not let anyone put their heads down about anything.”
The defensive effort was needed as a second errant snap later in the quarter gave Lassiter two points on a safety and a 13-0 lead entering the fourth.
Despite the adverse conditions, Wheeler responded in the final quarter and earned a much-needed region victory.
“Being down 12-0, I kept telling the guys it was just a two-score game,” Love said. “I told them at halftime, our character was going to be tested, and it’s easy when you’re down to try to make a play and become undisciplined against a triple-option offense. I’m going to praise our kids for their effort because they stayed disciplined, they kept fighting and they kept believing.”