Two first half mistakes by Mt. Zion gave Darlington confidence that they might be able to hand the Eagles their first loss of the season.
Two quarters and an overtime period later, and the Tigers instead were the ones left with the defeat.
Mt. Zion scored on its first three drives of the second half largely because of big plays that caught Darlington scrambling and eventually led to a 31-30 loss in overtime. It’s the Tigers’ first Region 6-A/A subregion loss of the season.
“There’s a toughness. There’s a grind,” Darlington head coach Tommy Atha said after the game. “And they had a little bit more than we had.”
Tijai Whatley led the Tigers with 146 yards rushing and all four Darlington touchdowns on 28 carries. He scored on runs of 3, 16, 17 and 5. Mt. Zion quarterback Carlos Ackles finished 9-of-18 passing with two interceptions for 189 yards and a touchdown.
After Mt. Zion opened overtime scoring on a 1-yard run by Lane Ackles, Eagle kicker Matthew Tittle made the PAT to give his team the 31-24 lead.
Darlington’s turn saw the Tigers get to the 5 before Whatley juked once on his way into the end zone. Tiger kicker Luke Lewis set up to kick the extra point, but the ball wobbled on contact and hit the right upright, bringing the game to a heartbreaking end.
“You have to play two halves of football. You can’t relax,” Atha said. “We came out, had the football, had the opportunity to go down and maybe put the game away. And we just didn’t make the plays.”
Darlington (3-3, 2-1 6-A/A) had a 17-0 halftime lead after turning a fumble recovery and an interception into touchdowns in the opening 24 minutes. But the Tigers were forced to punt for the first time of the night after a quick three-and-out to start the second half.
It took Mt. Zion (5-0, 2-0) just three plays to cover 66 yards, most of which came on a 53-yard scoring strike from Carlos Ackles to Iaan Cousin to put the Eagles on the board. Another punt by Darlington led to a six-play, 78-yard drive by Mt. Zion, this one capped off with a 62-yard run by Breon Henderson.
Henderson, who led the Eagles with 158 yards on just 11 carries, scored again less than a minute into the fourth quarter on a 33-yard run. The kick from Tittle put the visitors ahead 21-17.
The Tigers’ pulled ahead 24-21 on Whatley’s third touchdown run of the game with 7:59 left to play, but Mt. Zion answered with a 12-play drive that ended with a 39-yard field goal by Tittle that just made it through the uprights.
Whatley and the Darlington offense got back to work with 3:48 on the clock, but the senior running back fumbled the ball three plays later and Mt. Zion’s Carlos Ackles recovered. The Eagles failed to get any points off of the turnover, which led to overtime.
Darlington travels to North Cobb Christian next Friday while Mt. Zion is in Chickamauga to take on Gordon Lee.