MONTGOMERY, AL-Faulkner's Gregg Baker spoke last week about needing to put together solid performances on both sides of the ball. And his team delivered just that Saturday afternoon at Cramton Bowl as the Eagles battled back in the second half to capture a thrilling 41-31 victory over Belhaven for their first-ever Mid-South Conference West Division victory.
After a Blazer touchdown early in the third quarter pushed their lead to eight points, the Faulkner defense slammed the door. And the offense responded, scoring the game's final 18 points to hand Baker arguably his biggest win as the Eagles' head coach.
"I'm so proud of these guys for continuing to work extremely hard, and for growing up as a football team," said Baker, his Eagles improving to 2-3 overall and 1-1 in the MSC West. "Guys on both offense and defense made plays when the game was on the line, and we needed every one of them to beat a quality team in Belhaven. It sure feels good when you sense a group of guys are catching on and growing in confidence. That's what happened this afternoon."
Leading 24-23 at halftime, Belhaven (3-3 overall, 0-2 MSC West) needed only two plays to score on its first possession of the third quarter, with Michael Pettus racing 48 yards from the Wildcat formation for the touchdown. James Bryan's point after put the Blazers on top 31-23 with 12:34 on the clock, but it would be the end of the scoring for the visitors from Jackson, Miss.
The Eagles took the ensuing kickoff and marched 60 yards for a score of their own. Tailback Triston McCathern slipped tackles and darted 28 yards to the end zone to bring Faulkner to within 31-29. Quarterback Zach Tribble then found Kamoron Clay for the two-point play that tied the game at 31.
It stayed tied until midway through the fourth quarter, and that's when the Faulkner defense stepped up. Facing third-and-12 from his own 6-yard line, Blazer quarterback Alex Williams looked for Kevin Dizer over the middle but the Eagles' Raquil Ward stepped in front for the interception. His return to the Belhaven 14 set up Tribble, who found wideout Jurell Williams in the end zone for the second time to give Faulkner the lead for good. Michael Jensen's extra point made it 38-31 with 7:13 to play.
The Faulkner defense struck again on Belhaven's next possession, with Emanuel Godfrey picking off a Williams' pass and returning it to the Blazer 22. The Eagles moved it to the 5, but could get no closer. Jensen then knocked a 22-yard field goal try through the uprights, and Faulkner had a 10-point lead with 3:18 left.
Belhaven threatened to cut into the lead in the closing minutes after a long kickoff return, but Blazer receiver Riggins Dore' fumbled into the end zone after a catch and the Eagles' Quinton Prothro recovered to end any chance of a comeback.
"Our defense just kept making the big plays," Baker said. "Guys like Ward and Godfrey just love the game and wanted a chance to play. Now that they've earned that opportunity, they're taking advantage of it."
The Eagles scored first in the opening minute of the game, thanks to a sack and forced fumble by linebacker Ellis Patterson. Erick Thompson recovered for Faulkner at the Belhaven 17, and it took the Eagles only one play, with Tribble finding Williams for the touchdown.
Belhaven responded with a pair touchdowns in the quarter to take a 14-7 lead, but Prothro answered back with perhaps the most electric play in Eagles' history. After bobbling the ensuing kickoff three yards deep in the end zone, the junior defensive back decided to run it out, and 103 yards later he had set a Faulkner record with the longest return ever.
"The guys were telling me to stay in the end zone, but I just had a feeling I should run it out," Prothro said. "I knew if I didn't return it well, coach Baker would have been all over me, so I was kinda running for my life."
The two teams battled back and forth in the second quarter, with Tribble's scoring strike to Clay bringing the Eagles to within a point at 21-20. The extra point was missed. Both Faulkner and Belhaven added field goals late in the half to leave it at 24-23 at the break, setting the stage for the wild final 30 minutes.
Tribble's three touchdown passes is a Faulkner record. The junior completed 26 of 45 passes for 287 yards on the afternoon. The Eagles' Brandon Cheatham rushed for 103 yards, as Faulkner amassed 425 yards of total offense. Belhaven had 427 yards of its own, but committed four turnovers to only one for Faulkner.
Faulkner hosts No. 21 Cumberland next week in another MSC showdown at Cramton Bowl. The game kicks off at 1:30.