Adairsville ends regular season with win, remains in playoff hunt

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Ringgold opened Friday’s road game against Adairsville with two drives straight down the field. But unlike the week before against Murray County, Adairsville managed to keep its opposition out of the end zone.

Despite totaling 148 yards on the possessions, the visitors settled for two field-goal tries, making just one. From that point forward, Adairsville completely stifled the Ringgold offense, forcing four turnovers, including a late fumble recovery in the end zone for a touchdown to seal an 18-3 victory.

“Defense, that’s the word of the night,” Adairsville head coach Eric Bishop said. “They played lights out. We kind of settled in. We were overrunning a lot of stuff early.”

With the Region 6-AAA win, Adairsville remains in prime position to grab the Class 3A state playoff at-large bid. The team likely won’t learn its postseason fate until Nov. 11, meaning Adairsville will have to spend the next week-plus prepping for a playoff game that may never come.

It’s still better than sitting at home, knowing the season is already over. At least, Adairsville has given itself a fighting chance by finishing the regular season with a 5-5 overall record and 4-4 mark in region play.

“If things go the way we hope it will with the Power Ratings and all that, we’ll get the chance to suit up again,” Bishop said. “Regardless, we’re open next week, and we’ll prepare as though we’re a playoff team. Hopefully, that works out that way.”

In the opening exchanges Friday, it appeared as though Adairsville’s season would come to an end at the hands of a previously winless team. Ringgold (0-9, 0-7) came out looking poised for its first win of a difficult season filled with injuries.

The Tigers from Catoosa County pulled off a trick play on the second play from scrimmage to pick up 64 yards. Adairsville stiffened up to force a 36-yard field-goal attempt that was unsuccessful. After the Tigers from Bartow County failed to take advantage of a muffed punt, Ringgold drove down inside the 10-yard line again.

But for the second straight series, Adairsville held the visitors out of the end zone. Tokyo Gordon made a third-down tackle in the backfield, but Ringgold did manage to take a 3-0 lead on a 25-yard field goal in the closing seconds of the first quarter.

From that point, Adairsville recovered two fumbles, intercepted two passes and forced four punts. Ringgold’s only other possessions the rest of the night were a one-play drive to end the first half and a four-play sequence to finish out the game.

Adairsville’s offense, meanwhile, struggled to string together first downs most of the night, as the team settled for punts on its first three series.

“We were very surprised by the fact that they came out in a three-man front,” Bishop said of the Ringgold defense. “Not something we expected; not something we prepared for. It’s not something we’ve seen in any of these years that we’ve been in the same region together.

“We were able to manage through it until we got the adjustments made. … We were able to start moving the ball, and then we got the four-man look we thought we were going to get.”

Once the home team got its offense going, the game very nearly got away from Ringgold, especially over the final four minutes of the second quarter.

Jacob Ray made three key plays in a four-snap span. The sophomore caught an 8-yard pass on third-and-5 to give Adairsville a first down. He followed that up with a 19-yard run. Following a negative-yardage play, Ray found himself wide open in the end zone, and quarterback Conner Crunkelton lofted a 17-yard touchdown pass to him.

Lined up in the swinging gate formation, Crunkelton added a 2-point conversion run after getting the look he needed for an 8-3 lead with 3:56 to go in the half. Two plays later, Ringgold fumbled the ball near midfield, and Gordon pounced on it.

Having won the opening coin toss and electing to defer, Adairsville knew it would get the ball to start the second half. Thusly, Bishop’s crew set off in pursuit of a two-score lead at the break.

Crunkelton connected with Wade Conduff for a 26-yard pass to set up a first-and-goal situation. With 11.7 seconds left in the quarter, Adairsville opted to go for it on fourth down from the 1-yard line. Ringgold blew up the play in the backfield, dropping Crunkelton for a loss to remain with 5 points at halftime.

“That was the big key and the reason we went for it there instead of kicking the field goal, because we knew we were getting the ball out of the half,” Bishop said of the decision. “If we could score there and then score on the first drive [after halftime], you’re talking about a 14-point swing.”

Instead, Adairsville scored zero points on that possession and zero on the first series out of the break. Ringgold responded with its best drive since the first quarter. But after getting Adairsville to jump offsides on a third-and-2 play, Derrick Simmons picked off a jump ball.

Later, teammate TyShawn Savage intercepted a pass as time expired in the third quarter to give Adairsville the ball at the Ringgold 15-yard line. However, the offense stalled again, leading to Emanuel Lopez’s 27-yarder to extend the lead to 11-3.

“We still continue to have problems once we get into the red zone,” Bishop said.

Still within one score, Adairsville’s defense caused a pair of punts on either side of a missed 44-yard field-goal try by Lopez. The junior AJC preseason all-state selection made up for the miss with an exquisite punt, pinning Ringgold at its own 1-yard line with a minute left in the game.

Needing to go 99 yards in 59.2 seconds, Ringgold instead fumbled in the end zone on first down. Defensive lineman Garrett Ellis, who has wreaked havoc all season, jumped on the ball to put the game on ice.

“With about nine minutes left in the fourth quarter,” Bishop said, “we were on the headsets and I told them, ‘We’ve got to find another way to score. I don’t care if it’s on defense. … We’ve got to find a way to score and put some distance between us.’”

Ellis’ recovery and Lopez’s subsequent extra point gave Bishop the relief he craved. It also allowed Adairsville to close out the regular season with a win on senior night.

No matter what happens in the coming days, Friday’s game will certainly prove to be the final home game of the season for Adairsville. If it ultimately proves to mark the end of the year, as a whole, Bishop will know his team ended the season on a positive note, having won its final two games to claw back to a .500 record.

“There are so many of them that have contributed in so many ways, and not just to our football program,” Bishop said of his players. “You’ve got Malachi [Gardner], Savaun [Henderson] and Conner, all three of those guys are starters or first off the bench on our basketball team. They are leaders in the hallways. This senior group has been a great group for four years. They’ve put in a ton of work. As I said in the preseason, this team has more invested in it than any team since I’ve been at Adairsville. …

“We look forward to hopefully getting to suit up again this year. If not, then continuing to take this program in the right direction.”