The ending of the game was a far cry from the way it started.
South Cobb (2-0) scored the first touchdown of the game in the first quarter on a 13-yard touchdown pass from Stephon Masha to Carlos Anderson, taking the early 7-0 lead.
However, the Wildcats (0-2) responded with three first-quarter touchdowns, starting with an 80-yard kickoff return by Rashad Jenkins. The other scores came through a 64-yard touchdown run by Jamal Bryant and a 21-yard pass from Elijah Staley to Devontae Jackson, making the score 21-7 in favor of Wheeler.
South Cobb attempted to change the momentum in the first quarter by attempting a fake punt on a direct snap to Taylor Wolf, but the run came 1 yard short of a first down.
Wheeler scored its final points of the game and extended its lead to 28-7 in the second quarter on a 13-yard touchdown run by Staley.
The turning point of the contest came with 8:40 left in the third quarter, when South Cobb defensive back Josh Kimble grabbed the first of his two second-half interceptions off a pass from Staley.
The Eagles took advantage of the momentum by scoring on their next possession through a 5-yard touchdown run by Chris Beck to cut the lead to 28-13.
“We came into the second half knowing that we needed to execute our running game better if we wanted to get the win,” Beck said. “Our offensive line did an excellent job of opening holes for me and the other running backs in the second half.”
Wheeler fumbled the ball on its next possession, one of the team’s six turnovers in the game, and the Eagles came within one score of tying the game with 3:50 left in the third quarter on a 5-yard touchdown pass from Masha to Beck, cutting the Wildcats’ lead to 28-20.
The Eagles’ next score came with 7:34 left in the game on a 35-yard run by Beck to make the score 28-26. But South Cobb failed on its 2-point conversion attempt and still trailed heading into the final minutes of the contest.
South Cobb gained possession of the ball with 39 seconds left in the contest and managed to get within field-goal range thanks to two long passes from Masha to Anderson, who finished with a game-high 137 yards receiving.
The Eagles actually attempted the first field goal on second down, but the snap was misplayed by the holder. However, a South Cobb player fumbled the ball out of bounds and the Eagles were able to regain possession of the ball.
Then, with 3 seconds left on the clock, Saldana lined up for another attempt at the game-winning and converted with no time remaining.
“I was nervous because this is my first year kicking for the team, and we messed up the first field-goal attempt,” Saldana said. “We got the ball back and I wanted to show everybody that we’re a good team by making the kick on my next chance.”
The Eagles gained 225 of its 270 total yards and caused four Wheeler turnovers in the second half.
“I told our guys to go out and see what we’re made of in the locker room heading into the second half,” South Cobb coach Ed Koester said. “Our defense stepped up for us in the second half, and our offense improved as well.”
Wheeler struggled on offense in the second half, particularly on third-down conversions where the Wildcats were 0-for-3.
“We were able to get pressure on the quarterback and move the ball on offense in the first half,” Wheeler coach Mike Collins said. “This is a difficult loss, but we played a good team for four quarters and were seconds away from getting a road victory. We have to build on the positives and not let this loss carry over into our next contest.”
The contest was also the home opener for South Cobb, and the players were aware of the significance.
“This is my first year starting for the squad and it’s great getting a victory in front of our home fans,” said Beck, who finished with three second-half touchdowns. “We hope to carry this momentum through the rest of our season.”