Mitchell County's Freddy Pate (51) and the Eagles played smash-mouth football against defending state champ Clinch County all night Friday, but came up short, 20-19, in the final seconds.
CAMILLA -- Clinch County head coach Jim Dickerson called it a game of inches. He couldn't have been more right.
An inch or two to the left on a Mitchell County extra point or an inch or two shorter on Clinch County's game-winning two-point conversion and the Eagles are on to the second round.
Clinch, however, found the hidden inches Friday and pulled out a 20-19 win in the last minute to beat Mitchell in the first round of the GHSA Class A state playoffs.
"(Mitchell County) never gave up and it looked like they had the game won," Dickerson said after the win, which advances the Panthers to the second round where they will travel to face Lincoln County. "We just happened to get those two inches, and they were big."
Mitchell County (7-4, Region 1-A No. 2 seed) overcame a 12-0 deficit in the fourth quarter with 19 unanswered points in four minutes. The Eagles went up 19-12 on Jaquan Williams' 28-yard interception return for a touchdown with 3:48 to play. The point after, however, clanked off the right upright to keep the lead at seven.
"We didn't execute," Eagles' head coach Dondrial Pinkins said. "It's just another game we let slip away. It was our ballgame to win, and we let it get away."
Clinch (8-3, Region 2-A No. 3 seed) answered when Kenneth White returned the ensuing kickoff 34 yards to midfield and the Panthers marched 10 plays, capping the drive with Fred Tiller's 1-yard quarterback draw for a score with 33 seconds to play, needing just an extra point to tie, down 19-18.
Clinch, however, had botched its first two PATs so Dickerson gambled.
"I kind of thought of the old baseball adage that you always hear - you go for the tie at home and the win on the road," Dickerson said. "I thought we had the momentum."
Tiller, who had never played quarterback in his life before Friday night, took another quarterback draw straight up the gut and stretched out over the end zone line for the winning conversion, sending Mitchell home for the second consecutive year in the first round.
"It's probably really a call for not a very smart coach, but sometimes when it works out, it's great," said Dickerson, who won the Class A state title last season.
Eagles senior receiver Yancey Burns, who pulled in a juggling 96-yard touchdown pass from Derrick Davis in the fourth quarter to ignite Mitchell's furious rally, couldn't talk about the play afterward.
All Burns could think about was the heartbreak.
"Right now I can't even tell you how I feel about the catch," said Burns, who caught five passes for 118 yards. "(After Clinch's two-point conversion) I just thought it's my last high school game. I thought we would go all the way."
Clinch and Mitchell played to a scoreless tie at halftime, managing to combine for just 72 total yards in the first half. Clinch didn't pick up a first down in the half and Mitchell fumbled the ball away twice and threw one interception.
The Panthers came alive first in the second half, scoring on their first possession with Rashad Grant's 5-yard touchdown run. Grant, who had three yards at halftime, finished with 122 yards rushing on 21 carries. Tiller ran for 68 yards on 22 carries and added a 2-yard scoring run at the end of the third quarter to put Clinch ahead, 12-0.
Davis put Mitchell on the board with 7:53 to play on a 1-yard sneak and then hit Burns streaking on a slant that nearly covered the entire field, putting the Eagles ahead 13-12 with 4:40 left. On the next snap from scrimmage, Williams picked off Tiller and waltzed into the end zone, giving the Eagles their first lead.
Davis threw for 127 yards on 6-of-12 passing with one interception and one touchdown. Jontae Moore led Mitchell with 49 yards rushing on nine carries.
Clinch, which had 15 total yards at halftime, finished with 200 yards rushing. Mitchell outgained the Panthers 230-205 and had one more first down (12-11).
"It was going to boil down to who wanted it the most and it came down to the last play of the game," Pinkins said. "We'll get back in the weight room and try to come back and make another run at it."