By Donald Health
Special for the Effingham Herald
SPRINGFIELD — If he wasn’t wearing shoulder pads, you probably would have seen a humble shrug from Effingham County linebacker Tyler Wells.
The versatile junior and his teammates on defense registered five turnovers, blocked two extra-point kicks and held off surprisingly tough Bradwell Institute 14-12 on Friday at Rebel Field.
“We were just flying around having fun,” Wells said. “That’s what a defense is supposed to do.”
Wells contributed a blocked kick, an interception, caught a 5-yard pass on offense, returned a kickoff 11 yards and punted five times for a 45.2-yard average. His 62-yard punt midway through the fourth quarter flipped the field on the Tigers, who had stopped ECHS at the Rebel 23 and may have expected a better starting point than their own 23 (after an 8-yard return).
“One play can swing a game, we tell them that all the time and that punt changed field position and helped us a lot,” ECHS head coach Buddy Holder said. “(Wells) had a heck of a game.”
The Rebels (3-5, 2-2 Region 2-6A) needed the help. They never trailed Bradwell, but an offense that managed only 131 yards and five first downs wasn’t pulling away from a team that lost its three previous region games by an average of nearly 27 points a game.
But ECHS’ defense made the small lead look big. The Rebels surrendered only one offensive touchdown and stopped two Bradwell drives in the red zone.
It was a great reunion night for defensive coordinator Mike Adams, who was an assistant on the Tigers coaching staff last season.
“Defensively, they played their brains out,” Holder said. “I’m so proud of the effort that Mike Adams and what those guys on defense did. Those kids performed tonight.”
ECHS got off to a good start. On the second possession, a 32-yard screen pass from Zach Garcia to Devon Swinney set up Swinney’s 2-yard TD run on the next play for ECHS’ early 7-0 lead.
Bradwell (0-5-1, 0-4) inched closer late in the first quarter when Elijah Leiataua returned an interception for a touchdown, but Bryce Vanderhoek blocked the extra-point kick.
Despite having a lead, the Rebels offense produced only 35 yards by halftime.
Holder said the unit came out with more determination in the second half.
“They bonded together in the locker room and decided they were going to do something,” Holder said.
That something came quickly. A fumble recovery set up ECHS at the Bradwell 26 and four plays later, on fourth down, Miquel Allen broke an off-tackle run for a 17-yard TD and a 14-6 lead.
The Tigers responded by marching 62 yards on six plays, culminating the drive with a 31-yard scoring toss from Jahki Newton to Kamarion Melvin.
Although trailing by two, Bradwell elected to kick an extra point (6:05 still remained in the third quarter) but Wells blocked the kick.
Early in the fourth quarter, the Tigers appeared to get the go-ahead score on their next possession but a holding penalty negated a 20-yard touchdown pass.
Bradwell gave up the ball on downs at the 23. ECHS couldn’t gain a yard on its possession, but Wells, who had 58-yard and 48-yard punts earlier in the game, boomed a 62-yarder to get the Rebels out of harm’s way.
ECHS’ win sets up a Friday night showdown with Statesboro, most likely with fourth place in the region and a berth in the state playoffs on the line.
“We felt like we needed two wins to get in and (beating Bradwell) that’s one of them,” Holder said. “We have two games left and the first one is Statesboro so that’s the one we’re going to go after. Statesboro is the only game we can control this week.”