ATHENS - After a rather mundane first 47 minutes, the last few sure made Rockdale sweat. Tavaris Williams caught a 15-yard touchdown from Isaiah Gresham in overtime as the Bulldogs defeated Clarke Central 26-23.
Clarke (3-2) had taken a 23-20 lead on Adam Erickson's 30-yard field goal, but the real fireworks came at the end of regulation. Trailing 20-12 with four seconds left in the game and facing a fourth-and-10 at the Rockdale 48, quarterback Martay Mattox scrambled and somehow connected with Dimitri Holmes for a touchdown that made it a 20-18 game, setting of a raucous celebration at Billy Henderson Stadium.
Unfortunately for the Gladiators, the celebration spilled onto the field, costing the hosts 15 yards on a celebration penalty. It didn't seem to bother Mattox, who again was flushed from the pocket and found Holmes, who made a fantastic catch for the two-point conversion that tied it at 20-20.
"All we tried to do at the end was get everybody back and knock it down; we're just glad we came out of here with a win; our kids played with a lot of heart," Rockdale coach Mike Etheridge said. "We've been snake-bit for the last few weeks. Tavaris has made some great catches for us, pulling it out of his hat."
Early on, it looked as if Clarke Central might cruise to its 10th victory in 12 games in the series. The Gladiators marched down the field on a seven-play, 76-yard drive to start the game. Quenshaun Watson found a seam and raced down the sideline for a 35-yard run to move into Rockdale territory, and later, Mattox hooked up with Holmes for a 13-yard completion on fourth-and-three, then found a wide open Jeremy Hughes for a 21-yard touchdown that put the Gladiators up 6-0.
The visitors didn't flinch, answering Clarke's initial score with the go-ahead points. Gresham scrambled for 28 yards to set up first-and-goal and following an offside penalty, Kyle Tippins scored from two yards to give Rockdale (2-3) a 7-6 lead.
Erickson showed off his leg on the first play of the second quarter to help Clarke retake the lead. Erickson booted a 49-yard field goal, though it looked as if the kick would've been good from at last 55 yards, to make it 9-7.
Tippins struck again on the ensuing possession, capping an 11-play, 80-yard drive with a 12-yard score that gave the Bulldogs a 14-9 cushion. Tippins was part of a Rockdale rushing attack that was the main story in the first half. A week after being held to 97 rushing yards in four quarters against Apalachee, the Bulldogs collected 160 in the first half Friday.
Thompson's 28-yard field goal late in the second quarter cut the lead to 14-12 at halftime.
Rockdale rattled Mattox for a fumble deep in Clarke territory that was recovered by Rashawn Binns at the 7-yard line, but the Bulldogs couldn't take advantage as Brandon Story's 20-yard field goal attempt was blocked by Rush Maxwell.
Clarke's offense, which really struggled after its opening possession of the game, went backward on a critical fourth quarter drive, stalling at its own 3-yard line, and it cost the Gladiators.
"You got to give credit to all of them," Etheridge said of the Bulldogs defense.
With under six minutes to play in the game, Rockdale took over on the Clarke 26-yard line. Five plays later, Gresham exposed a soft middle in the Clarke defense, hooking up with Xavier Mollette for a 17-yard touchdown and a 20-12 lead.
"I really think Isaiah (has) had a heck of two games; he's doing well," Etheridge said.
Before the improbable, game-tying drive, Clarke had another chance to tie the game, but Mattox's pass attempt near the goal line hit off Westervelt Henson's hands and was intercepted by Neville Hewitt.
Kurt Aschermann can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.