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By STAN CALDWELL – Dispatch Correspondent
It’s never over until it’s over, and the Richton Rebels are living proof.
Richton was dead in the water, trailing by nine points with under four minutes to play in the game, then summoned up some magic.
Sophomore quarterback Dakota Amos threw two touchdown passes to senior Seth Mills in the final minutes of play to pull out a 19-15 victory over St. Andrew’s Thursday night in their 2022 home opener at the HS field.
The victory gave Richton its first victory of the season after two losses on the road to open the season. St. Andrew’s dropped to 1-2.
“We’re this close to being a really good football team,” said Richton head coach Stephen Rice, holding his fingers about an inch apart. “This was a really big win.”
They certainly seemed to find something on both sides of the ball in the fourth quarter against the Saints.
“I think (Dakota) is a natural back there,” said Rice. “His athleticism allows him to do some stuff, extend plays.”
The Rebels overcame a mistake-prone first half that saw them lose a fumble, give up a long touchdown pass and a safety, along with seven costly penalties for 60 yards in walk-off yardage.
“I think the biggest thing was just cleaning up the penalties,” said Rice. “I think some of it was us trying to do too much, some frustration after the last couple of games.
“Instead of doing too much, we told them just play football. Just do what we teach you to do every day and you’ll be fine. I think we cleaned that up in the second half, for sure.”
Indeed, Richton did not turn the ball over, and had just two penalties for 15 yards in the second half.
Much of the credit goes to a resilient defense that held the Saints to a net of just 12 yards rushing and bottled up junior quarterback Friend Walker for much of the game.
“We knew they were a passing team, and we felt like the more pressure we put on them, the less time they’d have to throw the ball,” said junior linebacker Ben Jackson Lee. “We tried to stick that linebacker in there a little bit to get more pressure.”
St. Andrew’s opened the scoring after stopping the Rebels on the opening possession of the game on a fourth down at the Richton 28-yard-line.
The Saints got down to the Rebel 2, but on first-and-goal, Lee burst through on a run blitz and dropped senior tailback Devin Caddle for a 6-yard loss. Two incompletion forced St. Andrew’s to settle for a 24-yard field goal by Rolen Fanning.
Richton got on the board early in the second quarter, capping a 14-play, 87-yard drive with a 21-yard scoring strike to senior Chas McIlwain on a fourth-down pass.
Amos showed his youth at times, but he still converted 7 of 22 passes for 154 yards and three touchdowns, and all seven of his completions came at clutch moments.
“I just started trusting my teammates more,” said Amos, who also ran 10 times for 51 yards. “There were times when we didn’t play so good, but we trusted each other.”
The rest of the first half, though, proved nightmarish for the Rebels.
After recovering an onside kick after the touchdown, a promising drive stalled after a halfback pass from Mills on fourth down fell incomplete.
St. Andrew’s capitalized on the next play, as Walker hooked up with senior Connor Dunnigan for a 70-yard catch-and-run and a 10-6 lead.
More trouble followed for Richton, when the Saints recovered a fumble near midfield. The Rebels held, but Fanning’s punt was downed at the Rebel 5, and on the first play, a fumble in the end zone gave St. Andrew’s a safety.
After a back-and-forth first six minutes of the third quarter, St. Andrew’s embarked its best drive of the night, a 15-play, 67-yard march that ate up 10 minutes, 24 seconds off the clock.
The Saints converted four consecutive third downs, but on the fifth, the Rebels held, forcing a 40-yard field goal from Fanning with 8:59 to play in the game.
“That was huge,” said Rice. “I think the last couple of weeks our defense has really solidified. They’ve kept in ball games, and I think the more we get experience on offense, we’ll be more successful.”
That’s when the Rebels started to find their footing on offense. Freshman tailback B.J. Brown ripped of a 27-yard run to get Richton from its own 17 to the 41-yard-line, and the Rebels got to the Saints 14 before Amos missed on a fourth-down play.
Brown finished the night with 89 yards on 18 carries, and he appears to be the workhorse back the Rebels have been searching for.
“For a ninth-grader, he really came on for us,” said Rice. “We’ve got some of our other backs playing other positions. Right now, B.J. just a one-side guy, just running the ball. So, I think that helps him a little bit.
“He’s a downhill runner. He’s not real flashy, but he hits it up in there and runs hard, and that’s what we needed.”
But the defense had their young offense’s back, getting a three-and-out to give the Rebels good field position at the Saints 36. And this time they cashed in.
Amos hit Mills for a 9-yard pick-up, then an 11-yard scamper around left end gained 11 yards to the St. Andrew’s 14, and from there, Amos found Mills wide open in the end zone for a touchdown.
Amos was stopped just short on the PAT run, but the Rebels had it back to a one-score game with 2:35 to play.
“I felt like I was ready to catch the ball,” said Mills, who finished with three catches for 58 yards and two touchdowns. “We needed to pass the ball a little more. The running game did pretty good, but they left me open for two plays, and we came through.”
Once again, the Rebels stood tall on defense with another three-and out, and a shanked punt game Richton the ball at the Saints 36 with 2:06 remaining.
“We just kind of bowed up a little bit,” said Lee. “They were just pounding on us and pounding on us, and we just went back out there and decided that we weren’t going to have that, just keep letting them pound it down our throats.”
Amos misfired on two passes, then a draw play only netted a yard. But on fourth down, Mills again got behind the coverage, and Amos put the ball right on the money for the game-winning score.
“We just have to keep coming to work, keep grinding,” “Amos said. “They had to respect me when I rolled out, and that gave me time to find my teammates.”
Although the Rebels were only 3 of 11 on third down, they were good on 3 of 6 fourth-down plays, including two touchdowns.
Freshman Sergio Hernandez kicked the PAT to give Richton a 19-15 lead, and on the first play after the kickoff, Lee sacked and stripped Walker for a game-clinching fumble.
“That felt really good,” said Lee. “Close game like that. What a way to end it.”
The Rebels still have one more game before getting into Region 4-1A play, traveling to Puckett next Friday.
“Our thing is to be locked in for four quarters and keep fighting,” said Mills. “We didn’t give up, and we played as a family. That’s what we’ve been searching for after those two losses to start the season.”