By Chris Yow
For The Tribune
GARDENDALE – Bouncing back from a loss seems to be something Clay-Chalkville has taken pride in doing this season. A week after falling to Class 7A James Clemens, the Cougars (5-2, 3-1) gutted out a 23-20 win over Gardendale (4-3, 2-2) in what will likely prove to be a very important game in Class 6A, Region 6.
Sophomore quarterback Willie Miller was solid throughout the game, completing 18 of his 25 pass attempts for 264 yards. None of them, however, were any bigger than the dime he dropped on third-and-7 to 5-star recruit Nico Collins with just under two minutes to go in the game, pushing the Cougars inside the Rockets’ 5-yard-line. The drive eventually ended on downs for the Cougars, but left the Rockets with only a few seconds remaining in the game. Collins then picked off Gardendale quarterback Michael Crowder on the game’s final play to seal the win.
Head coach Jerry Hood was proud of Miller’s performance, and rightfully so.
“He took care of the ball,” Hood said. “When (Gardendale) brought more (defenders) than we could block, they left a hole, and he hit it.
“I don’t blame them for making him make the throws, but he did.”
Once again, the defense of Clay-Chalkville came through in the clutch with Collins’ interception. With a 23-7 lead in the third quarter, the Rockets scored back-to-back touchdowns to pull within three points, but the onside kick following their last touchdown was recovered by the Cougars.
Crowder was seemingly unstoppable on the Rockets’ final touchdown drive, rushing three times for 31 yards and tossing a touchdown pass to Conner Howell to finish the drive.
The Rockets actually led early in the game. They answered a Drennon Mayhew 26-yard field goal with a touchdown drive, highlighted by Michael Crowder’s brother Steven in the wildcat offense. He ran just four times for 15 yards in the drive, including a 4-yard touchdown run to give the Rockets a 7-3 lead early in the second quarter.
From there, it was all Clay-Chalkville’s offense for a while.
Miller found a wide open Terrill Cole across the middle for a 40-yard touchdown pass with 2:29 to go in the first half. The Cougar defense forced a punt, and with 27 seconds left in the half, Miller completed three straight passes – two found Tre Miller for 49 yards – and the final pass was a 7-yard touchdown on a throwback to Tony Gurley.
That stingy defense came back out at halftime for the Cougars, as DJ Dale batted a pass into the air on the second play of the half, and caught it coming down for an interception. Miller and Collins hooked up twice on the ensuing drive, a 21-yard pass on third-and-eight that set up a 20-yard touchdown strike just two plays later. Collins finished with six catches in the game for 113 yards.
Nic Jones led the Cougars in rushing with 63 yards on the ground on just nine carries. Gurley had a solid 44 yards on the ground, coupled with the touchdown catch.
“I was proud of our kids running the football tonight,” Hood said. “I thought it was a great effort.”
Now the fight for the playoff seeding begins. Clay-Chalkville still has to face region leader Minor, as well as Carver-Birmingham. With a win over Minor, the Cougars could solidify the top seed in the region, but a loss could potentially land them in the No. 4 seed.
Hood said his team is young, but he has seen his team grow up this season.
“We had really tough games this year,” Hood said. “I told the kids today, ‘You’ve got heart.’ A lot of people are on the bandwagon when you’re 29-1. When you’re 4-2, nobody wants to talk to you. They bought into that, and played a great game.”
Clay-Chalkville returns home for a game with Carver-Birmingham next Friday night.