Canes finish regular season unbeaten to tie state record

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After giving up a 32-yard touchdown pass with exactly a minute left in the first half, Cartersville junior Devonte Ross immediately apologized to his coaches and teammates. Arguably the best athlete on the Canes, Ross knew he had made a mistake, and he wanted to atone.

“He apologized to everybody,” Cartersville head coach Conor Foster said of Ross, “and then he was determined to go make a play.”

Ross didn’t just make a play. He made two huge ones in quick succession to completely change Friday’s Region 5-AAAA matchup with Troup County at Callaway Stadium in LaGrange.

First came the ensuing kickoff return that Ross returned roughly 65 yards to the Tigers 15-yard line. Then on third-and-5, Ross caught a pass from Tee Webb, shook a defender and ran in for a game-tying touchdown with 10 seconds left in the half.

“That was really a big morale boost for us going into halftime,” Webb said.

Having trailed 21-14 prior to the score, the top-ranked Canes never trailed in the second half en route to a 45-35 road triumph. The win gives Cartersville 58 straight victories in the regular season, tying Camden County’s state record set in 2006.

“I’m happy to get a win anytime we can against a great team,” Foster said. “It’s something to be excited about. We’ve got a lot to clean up and a lot to get better. We’re going to have to get better soon.”

Preferably by next Friday, as Cartersville (10-0, 6-0) will host Flowery Branch in the first round of the Class 4A state playoffs next week at Weinman Stadium. The Falcons, who entered the day ranked eighth in classification, fell to Denmark Friday to finish fourth in a loaded Region 7-AAAA.

“They’re a really talented football team,” Foster said of Flowery Branch. “I got to go watch them last week. They’re big and physical up front. They have two running backs who are really, really good. They’re tough on defense and really well coached. Their coaching staff does a tremendous job. We’ve got our work cut out for us and need to play better next week.”

A defensive coordinator for the Canes since 2014, Foster was certainly not pleased with what he saw from the Cartersville defense. Troup boasts some incredible athletes, namely Auburn commit Kobe Hudson, who plays quarterback for his high school team but will be a wide receiver at the next level.

Hudson accounted for three total touchdowns. He had scoring passes to Marquavious Kelley (32 yards) and Nick Schweizer (29) on basically jump balls, while adding a 6-yard TD run. Running back Trey Williams was bottled up most of the night, but the senior still found the end zone twice, scoring twice from inside the 10-yard line.

“Unfortunately, we gave them some easy scores,” Foster said. “That’s on me, and that’s on us. We have a lot to clean up and a lot to work on. There’s some things in the kicking game, some discipline, focus and tenacity that we need to certainly pick up if we’re going to be successful in the playoffs.”

As disappointed as Foster clearly was with his defensive unit, he was equally pleased with Cartersville’s offensive showing.

“Our offense did a great job of making some in-game adjustments and throwing a lot of different formations and sets at them,” Foster said. “Just really proud of how they persevered and responded. Every time we gave up a score, the offense was able to stem their momentum and get it back for us. They did a great job tonight. Very proud of them.”

After Evan Slocum scored from 9 yards out on the game’s opening drive, the Canes had three consecutive series end in punts. One of those kicks was blocked and helped the Tigers take a 14-7 lead. Cartersville junior Harrison Allen tied things up with a 1-yard rushing touchdown with 2:15 remaining in the second quarter to start one of the game’s scoring flurries.

Oscar Hernandez, who made all six of his point-after tries, drilled a 24-yard field goal to give the Canes the lead for good midway through the third quarter ahead of the second offensive explosion. While it took 2 minutes, 5 seconds to score the final three touchdowns of the first half, the two high-powered offenses managed a trio of scores in a span of 71 seconds late in the third quarter.

Just like the first outburst, the Canes were the ones to bookend a Tigers touchdown with two of their own. Webb was the catalyst, breaking off a 53-yard touchdown run and dropping a perfectly thrown pass into Kyler Johnson’s hands for a 51-yard score.

“We knew it was going to be a fight from the start,” said Webb, who completed 18 of 33 passes for 208 yards and two TDs. “We came out here knowing we had to do our job to put as many points on the board as we could.”

Armed with a 38-28 lead entering the fourth quarter, Cartersville slowly put the game away over the final 12 minutes. The defense started off by forcing a turnover on downs. Despite its struggles, the unit managed to essentially cause four turnovers — a fumble recovery by Slocum, an interception by Marko Dudley and two fourth-down stops.

Allen’s second rushing touchdown — this one from 13 yards out — put the game out of reach. Troup, though, did manage a touchdown with 12 seconds left, signaling Cartersville still has room for improvement as it begins its quest for the program’s fifth state championship.

“We’re all very excited,” Webb said. “Just got to go to work.”