Whitwell earns hard-fought Region 3-1A win at Sale Creek

Staff photo by Robin Rudd / Whitwell quarterback Bennett McDougal picks up some tough yards in the middle of the Sale Creek defense Friday night. In a matchup of state-ranked teams with big stakes in Region 3-1A, McDougal scored three touchdowns to lead the Tigers to victory at Sale Creek.

Whitwell junior Bennett McDougal expected a hard-fought game Friday night at Sale Creek, and he provided a performance to meet the demand in a key Region 3-1A contest.

McDougal scored all three touchdowns for his team as the Tigers, with a state ranking of No. 6 in TSSAA Class 1A, picked up a 20-8 victory against the No. 9 Panthers.

On a night when Sale Creek (3-2, 1-1) was dedicating its field to former coach Ron Cox, the Panthers showed toughness throughout the game on offense and defense. But costly mistakes — including two interceptions by Khari Escobar — kept the home team from getting the win.

"I knew it was going to be a physical game," McDougal said. "We knew they were going to bring their 'A' game, so I just brought mine as well. I told my team that every single play we should win, and that's what we did."

McDougal opened the scoring for the visitors with a 2-yard run midway through the first quarter. On Sale Creek's next possession, Escobar threw an interception, setting up the Tigers (5-0, 2-0) for a 69-yard touchdown pass from Brandon Easterly to McDougal.

(READ MORE: Final scores and photos from Friday night's Chattanooga-area prep football games)

On the next series, Sale Creek used its running game to put together a grinding 19-play drive to the Whitwell 4-yard line, but Escobar's fourth-down pass to the end zone was knocked away from Evan Higgins.

Whitwell's hopes of extending the lead in the first half were quashed when Sale Creek defenders Higgins and Daniel Hall sacked McDougal in the end zone for a safety and cut the Tigers' lead to 14-2 at halftime.

Sale Creek started the second half with another drive deep into Whitwell territory and had first-and-goal on the 4 after a 19-yard run by Ridge Morgan. But a personal foul penalty pushed the Panthers back to the 19, and Escobar was picked off by Whitwell's Peyton Roberts to end the scoring bid.

"We just couldn't finish a drive," said Sale Creek coach Jason Fitzgerald, who is his first season with the Panthers after a successful run at Meigs County. "We get it down there one time and we thought we had a touchdown pass, then we come back down on the next drive and we get about on the 2 and there's a personal foul penalty. We've just got to clean that up."

The second half was a slog for both teams until Whitwell put together a drive that ended with McDougal pitching the ball to Easterly, who passed back to McDougal for a 22-yard touchdown with 6:53 remaining in the game.

Despite some errors early, Escobar rallied the Panthers for an 11-play drive late, and he scored on a 3-yard touchdown run to give the Panthers something to build on in the future. After the game, Fitzgerald said that was the type of play he needed to see more of from his quarterback.

"He led a great drive at the end, and that's what we've got to have from him," Fitzgerald said. "If we just clean up our offense a little bit, our defense is playing pretty good. We've just got to clean up that offense."

Whitwell coach Rocky Stephenson said he was proud of the way his team responded to a big road test to stay undefeated in region play.

"It was a hard-fought win," he said. "They're a very physical team and have improved, and we knew they were going to be (tough). We just worked hard all week to be tough defensively to try and stop their run game. I think our defense held it together and didn't give up the big play."

Contact Jim Tanner at sports@timesfreepress.com.