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Early misses FG as time expires, falls to Fitzgerald

FITZGERALD — Early County shot itself in the foot all night. It was appropriate a foot cost them the game.

Bobcats’ kicker Brandon Carter missed wide left by a foot with four seconds left Friday as Fitzgerald squeezed out a 17-14 Region 1-AA win over Early County.

Canes’ junior kicker Manuel Chavez kicked the game-winner with 2:52 left in the game with a 40-yard field goal that kept Fitzgerald’s hopes of hosting a first-round playoff game alive.

“He’s hit plenty of those,” Fitzgerald head coach Jason Strickland said of Chavez’s kick. “Right when (Early County attempted the game-tying field goal) I knew it was wide, but this one (Chavez kicked) I had to lean to pull it in.”

After three first-half turnovers in the opening 24 minutes, Early (5-3, 2-2 Region 1-AA) tied the game at 14-14 when senior quarterback Jacori Taylor busted loose on a 65-yard run with 7:29 to play. Taylor finished with 101 yards rushing on 16 carries and threw for 163 yards on 13-of-19 passing with one interception.

Outside of Chavez’s leg, Canes’ junior quarterback Romarius Gaulden did the damage for Fitzgerald (7-2, 4-1 Region 1-AA), rushing for 158 yards on 16 carries. He also threw for 30 yards on 2-of-5 passing.

Gaulden’s 31-yard touchdown run late in the third quarter gave the Canes a 14-7 lead before the fourth quarter drama ensued.

“We’re very fortunate (to win),” Strickland said. “They’ve got a great football team.”

Gaulden could only watch from the sidelines as Early County converted a 4th-and-2 at the Fitzgerald 33 in the final minute and then Taylor hit Jatavius Lyles on a 19-yard pass down to the Canes’ 10 before a delay of game penalty backed the Bobcats up to the 15, where the game-tying field goal try eventually came.

“Praying,” Gaulden said about his thoughts as the final kick sailed wide. “That’s all you can do.”

Early County killed itself with mistakes in the first half, turning the ball over three times inside the Canes’ 25. Jacori Taylor put the ball on the ground twice at the Fitzgerald 23 and then a killer inside the Fitzgerald 5-yard line. The Canes’ Gerald Morgan also blocked a punt in the second quarter, but it led to no points. Early outgained Fitzgerald 341-298 in total yardage.

“Our guys fought hard and just came up short,” Early County head coach Trey Woolf said. “There’s not much more I can say.”

Still, the Bobcats hung around on defense, led by Brakari Isom and Laversay Taylor, and tied the game at 7-7 with 49 seconds left in the half when Taylor hit Chris Lee in the endzone on a 26-yard scoring pass.

Fitzgerald took the early lead when junior quarterback Romarius Gaulden went streaking on the third play from scrimmage with a 49-yard option keeper just 1:35 into the contest.

Keane Kittrell and D.J. Smith had fumbled recoveries in the first half for Fitzgerald and Smith also picked off Taylor inside the Canes’ 10 to end the Bobcats’ threat with less than five minutes left before half.

Fitzgerald ends its regular season Friday at home against Thomasville with a shot at locking up home field in the first round of the playoffs. Early County plays hosts to Pelham Friday and then welcomes Cook County to Blakely in two weeks to finish the regular season in a game that will likely determine the third and fourth seeds in Region 1-AA.