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SPORTS RECAP: Raiders fall short in upset bid of third-ranked Tigers

The Courier Herald – November 16, 2021

    COLUMBUS – West Laurens fell short in half of its 10 regular-season games this year, but never failed to give itself a shot in any of them. The scrappy Raiders played true to that M.O. Friday night, even against a top-rated team with more than a half-dozen division 1 recruits. 
   The Carver Tigers, whose offense and defense both ranked among the top four in the classification, got both a dogfight, and a scare, out of a fourth-seeded West Laurens club that turned their first-round playoff matchup into a defensive struggle. The Raiders took a 7-6 lead into the fourth quarter before a set of unfortunate swings in the early moments finally turned the ballgame in the home team's direction. 
   Carver pulled out a pair of late touchdowns to salvage a 22-7 win, and advance to the second round to take on Hapeville Charter. 
   But West Laurens (5-6, 3-3 region 4-AAAA) didn't go quietly, striking first to capitalize on a Tiger turnover in the early moments of the first before rising up defensively for four clutch stops, and a sack to deny a Carver two-point conversion, that brought them just 11 minutes from pulling off a shocker of monumental proportions. 
   The upset bid was a fitting conclusion to a 2021 season for the Raiders that was defined by their stubborn refusal to go down, whether on the part of their defense or in the running style of backs Cordarrian Hickman and Evan Guyton, who led the way for their offense all year, and on Friday night. 
   “(This) was a tough year, we had a lot of adversity, but our kids fought so hard. And tonight was evidence of that,” said West Laurens head coach Kagan McClain. “They came out against a tough opponent, maybe an athletically superior opponent, and I thought that we balled out. We had them down 7-6 in the fourth quarter, and our kids just played their tails off. I hate that those plays at the end finished the way they did, but I’m proud of these guys, and always proud to be a Raider.” 
   The West Laurens defense, after coming up with four key holds in the red zone that helped them clinch the playoff spot in the prior week's win over Westside Macon, made four more opportune plays when backed up against its own goal line, or in fourth-down situations, on Friday night. 
   Three of those stands came to force turnovers on downs, and a fourth that was the equivalent to apprehend a scrambling Carver quarterback D.J. Riles just three yards from the end zone on the final play of the first half. All four kept the Raiders staked to their 7-6 lead, which followed the teams' trade of first-half touchdowns that comprised the balance of scoring prior to the fourth. 
   West Laurens, offensively, threw all but the kitchen sink at the Tigers in the way of strange formations and presnap hijinks that helped it move the football consistently, although it struggled to finish off all but a first drive into plus territory on which it badly needed points. 
   Almost every offensive snap for the Raiders involved a minimum of three skill players and/or linemen shifting positions after lining up. They moved frequently from a traditional pistol alignment into their single-wing backfield, but multiple times added on some unorthodox dressing to the formations, flexing extra tackles from an unbalanced line into the slot as ineligible receivers. 
   The strange looks, and in-play misdirection, caught Carver defenders out of position for a good bit of the first half, although the Tigers seemed to get a better feel for the smoke and mirrors with their halftime adjustments. 
   "They've got a bunch of D1 players, and we knew we couldn't just line up hat for hat with them in there and get a lot done, so we were trying to outthink them a little bit, get some leverage, get some numbers in some areas," McClain said. "I thought the first half, it worked great. They made some adjustments, and then we made some adjustments. We threw a lot of different blitzes at them on defense to try and contain their quarterback. We couldn’t leave any tools in the toolbox against a team like that. We knew we had to leave it all on the field, and I think our kids and coaches did." 
   West Laurens quarterback Jace Thompson also pitched one of his best games, with a handful of on-time throws over the middle that found receivers for key first-down catches. The Raiders never scored after their opening possession, but kept their defense off the field with repeated first downs that made a difference in the possession battle. 
   They had plenty of zany stuff in store, but the craziness began in earnest on the part of Carver with a trick play gone wrong on its return of the opening kickoff. 
   The Tigers had quarterback Riles positioned as an up-man to take Dustin Couey’s pooch kick to around the 25. The senior muffed that initial catch, costing him valuable time on a turn to attempt a lateral to Jaiden Credle, the deep return man, several yards behind. 
   His overhand throw, gotten off simultaneous with a vicious hit by the Raiders’ Jathan Willis, shot through the hands of Credle at the 15, and was batted several times as it bounced around before being recovered by West's Christian Boston. 
   The Raiders took over at the plus-21, picked up a quick first down on a completion from Thompson to Johnny Williams, and despite being hit with a penalty, scored on second down of the next series, outnumbering the Tigers to the receiver-less left boundary by placing two eligible skill guys and a pair of extra offensive linemen to the right. 
   Cordarrian HIckman pulled the read and outran one man with a chance to catch him 14 yards to the end zone. Dustin Couey’s extra point made it 7-0, three minutes in. 
   Carver struck right back, gashing its way inside the five at a breakneck tempo to knock on the door with goal to go, but the Raider defense, as it’s done frequently this season, dug in and held them out from three yards away. 
   The Tigers misfired on a throw to the left of the end zone on third down, then after an illegal procedure foul, had a fourth-down completion called back on a hold to set them back at the 23 on fourth-and-goal, and without the option of a field goal try. The Tigers, having not attempted a point-after or field goal all season, were forced to take a shot. 
   West Laurens played max coverage, with five deep and several below in zone, rushing only three. Tyshun Clark got through to flush Riles from the pocket, and Willis came in on a delayed rush to sack him at the 30 for the stop. 
   The Raiders, after a handful of first downs on the ensuing series, was forced to punt back, and Carver answered with a 63-yard drive that did get to the end zone. 
   West Laurens had the Tigers in a fourth-and-short from their 27, but Riles faked out the entire defense on an excellent read of his back, Credle, who was hit by two or three inside defenders on a run up the gut for an apparent stop. Meanwhile, Riles was dashing off right tackle, with blocks, and juked out the lone defender with a chance on the 27-yard touchdown run. 
   But he was sacked from his back side by Isaiah Austin on the Tigers’ two-point attempt, and the Raiders stayed on top at 7-6.
   Both offenses stalled on their remaining drives of the first half, until the Tigers, with minimal time left, flipped the field on a deep completion from Riles to Jacobi Hatter that set them up with an opportunity to take the lead before the half. 
   But using their last timeout on a first down earlier in the drive left them with minimal time left, and a running clock, as the Raiders made a key tackle short of the first down marker to set up a do-or-die final play of the half from seven yards out.     
   With more great coverage deep, Terrell Hall and Jordan Spencer combined to flush the Middle Tennessee-committed passer from the pocket, and force him into a scramble for the right pylon. Javen Ashe tracked him down for an ankle tackle three yards from the goal that ended the half, and kept West Laurens on top by one going to the break. 
   "We dropped some guys into coverage, and lost contain on the QB," McClain said. "We knew we had to keep him out of the endone, and he headed for that right pylon. And Javen Ashe came up and made a heck of a shoestring tackle. It was just a big play, and really just the epitome of what our defense did all night. We bent, but didn't break." 
   The Raider magic continued in the third quarter, even after a fumble on the end of an extended run for a first down by Evan Guyton that went over to Carver on the Raiders’ second play from scrimmage. The Tigers, held to three-and-out after the turnover, eventually got the ball back and drove to the West Laurens 21, again facing a key fourth down that failed on a Riles throw to a wide-open receiver in the right flat. 
   The toss to his wideout, who didn't turn around to look for the ball in time, was hurried by the pressure of Spencer on a blitz up the middle. 
   Early in the fourth was when Carver finally found its breakthrough. After backing West Laurens deep in its own territory, the Tigers pressured a Couey punt that only reached midfield, and drove 49 for their go-ahead score. 
   Riles kept to move the chains on a key fourth-and-five that set the Tigers up with goal to go, and Jamari Riley carried in for the score from a few yards out just a couple plays later. The two-point keeper by Riles made it in to stretch the Carver lead to 14-7. 
   And the Tigers effectively put the game away on the ensuing kickoff, as West Laurens’ Janson Meeks caught and made a short return of the Carver kick. The junior, while wrapped up for the tackle, attempted to shovel the ball ahead to a teammate, but the toss ended up in no-man’s land for a Carver recovery. 
   The play, however, was flagged for an illegal forward pass, which by rule should have given West Laurens the ball, minus penalty yardage, at the spot of the throw. Instead, the officiating crew erroneously allowed Carver to decline the penalty, and take over possession. And then came the kill shot. 
   The deflated West Laurens defense allowed a receiver to leak deep in coverage for a wide-open touchdown on the first play, as Riles found William Bonilla on a 27-yard rainbow to the left side of the end zone. Another two-point conversion run by Riles made the score 22-7. 
   West Laurens resiliently drove to the red zone on its ensuing drive, with plenty of time left to get back in the game. But the Raiders wound up in a fourth-and-medium, on which a swing-out completion to Guyton was well-defended by Carver and stopped for the turnover on downs. 
   They wouldn’t get the ball back. 
   West Laurens held Carver to just three touchdowns, despite 453 total yards. Riles was 17 of 23 passing for 219 yards. He carried 10 times for 75, while Credle picked up 72 on 14. 
   The 2021 season saw the Raiders reach the postseason for a third-straight year, with four of its five regular-season losses by 14 points or less, and almost all involving a deciding fourth-quarter score. 
   "It was tough at times, but our guys never quit," McClain said. "They fought, they battled and they had success. When you're dealt a tough hand, that's all you can hope for." 

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