DECATUR — A cross county rivalry, plus homecoming, plus intense humidity and a combined 79 points on the scoreboard added up to an emotional four quarters of football.
When regulation ended, the visiting Union Yellowjackets came away with a 41-38 last minute win to dampen the Newton County Cougars’ homecoming and win the cleverly dubbed Battle for Highway 15.
“It was a big win for us, the way it happened. Hats off to Newton County. They fought all night, but I’m proud of our guys,” Union head coach Brad Breland said. “Man, it’s hot, and we just fought through it. Our guys fought, and their guys fought, and we were just lucky to make the last play.”
As with many intense rivalries, emotions were running high, and both teams capitalized on the emotional energy, forcing each other into mistakes that resulted in big plays and a back-and-forth ride on the scoreboard.
Ultimately, it came down to the final three minutes of the game and a defensive stand before Union delivered the crushing blow on a blocked punt by Jaylon Buckley and an interception by Jaheim Gill to seal the Cougars’ fate.
“We didn’t play very well on defense tonight, but hats off to them (Newton County) again,” Breland said. “They did a great job of evening us up and kind of taking us out of our slant game. They did what they had to do and executed, and we just made the last play.”
The Union defensive stand came at the 2:27 mark of the fourth quarter when the Yellowjackets, unable to convert on fourth down, gave the Cougars the ball at the Union 40-yard line. After three Cougar running plays that resulted in minus 2 yards the Cougars were forced to punt with 1:43 remaining on the clock.
Cougars quarterback and punter Hayden West had his punt blocked by Buckley. Buckley’s play gave great field position at midfield to Union quarterback Colby Ferguson, who had already helped the Yellowjackets amass 38 points with some big runs. Ferguson then took to the air and completed a pass to Markus Jones for a 31 yard touchdown play with 19 seconds remaining. The PAT was good, but Newton County had less than 30 seconds to make one last effort. It was there that Union’s Gill intercepted West’s pass at midfield and returned the ball all the way to the 12-yard line with seconds remaining to secure the win.
“We blocked pretty well, and our quarterback (Ferguson) did really well,” Breland said. “Also, Jaelin Buckley did a great job of blocking at running back. Both guys did great for us on offense tonight.”
Under Ferguson’s leadership, Union had 494 yards in total offense to Newton County’s 362. Ferguson was 8-for-12 passing with three touchdowns and one interception, while West went 6 of 13 with one touchdown and two interceptions. In the ground game, Union had 315 yards to Newton County’s 207. Ferguson led the Yellowjackets’ ground game with 164 yards on 33 carries, followed by Buckley with 99 yards on 11 carries. Marcus Wash led the Cougars with 128 yards on 20 carries.
“We’ve won two in a row now,” Breland said. “This is big for us. Newton County is a close rival, and we have a lot of good friends over there. You know you always like to beat your good friends, and luckily we made that play.”
Both teams got off to a fast start offensively, with Newton County scoring on their first offensive drive of the game when West hit Wash on a swing pass that Wash turned the corner on and gained 66 yards. Two plays later, Wash was in the end zone on 1-yard run. The PAT was no good, but the Cougars were up 6-0 with 8:48 remaining in the first quarter. Two minutes later, the Yellowjackets would take the lead 7-6 on a 35 yard pass play from Ferguson to Buckley. Henry Thornton’s PAT kick was good.
The Cougars answered on their next possession with an extended running game with Wash and Carlois Walker taking turns moving the ball on the Union defense. West eventually went to the air and found Lamar Morgan for a 38-yard touchdown pass. Cole Shimfessel’s kick was good, and the Cougars were back in the lead, 13-7, with 9 minutes left in the half. Capitalizing on their momentum, the Cougars’ Makindal Evans picked off Ferguson and scored from 38 yards out on the ensuing Union drive. The PAT kick was good, and the Cougars were up 20-7 with 7:54 left in the half.
Determined not to let the Cougar crowd get into the game, Ferguson and crew answered with two quick scores before halftime. The first was on a 34-yard run by Kenyon Clay, and the second was an 8-yard Ferguson run. Both PAT kicks were good, and the Yellowjackets went into the halftime break with a tenuous 21-20 lead.
In the third quarter, both teams got a touchdown each, with West scoring on an 8-yard run to regain the Cougar lead 26-21. The Yellowjackets answered with an 80-yard sustained drive that Ferguson capped off with a 1-yard touchdown run with 5:15 left in the frame. The kicked failed, but Union was in the lead 27-26.
Both teams opened up their offensive game in the fourth quarter, taking advantage of each other’s defensive miscues. The Cougars took back the lead early in the fourth quarter on a Wash 11-yard run. The 32-27 Cougar lead was answered by the Jackets with what could have been a back-breaking 73-yard pass play from Ferguson to Kenyon Clay to put them back in the lead 34-32 with 10 minutes left in the game.
West kept the Cougar crowd in the game with another successful drive that ended on his 1-yard run into the end zone. With 6:23 left in the game, the Cougars had again taken the lead 38-34. From there, it was a matter of high snaps, penalties and defense that ate up most of the fourth quarter before Ferguson and company got the last score on the 31-yard pass play to Jones with 19 seconds left in the game.
With the win, Union improves to 3-2 on the season while Newton County drops to 1-4.