ROME — Rockmart fans were given a cure for their worries and waiting for football season to finally come around again on Friday night.
In a thrilling grudge match that came down to just a few plays, the Yellow Jackets went into Barron Stadium and opened the 2020 season by giving Rome High some food for thought before the host Wolves came from behind to win 28-21.
Rome picked off three Rockmart passes and had a significant fumble recovery in the final quarter that helped them get past the talented Class 3A squad looking to get a win to start out the season.
“We’re excited that football’s being played in the state of Georgia and we’re very grateful for it,” Rockmart head coach Biff Parson said. “Obviously, I hate losing as much as anybody but there’s not a moral victory. We’re not sitting here going, ‘Hey we went up to 6A Rome and got beat by seven points.’ We came up here expecting to win.”
Rockmart had looked to its own senior quarterback, Javin Whatley, to help spark the Jackets’ offense most of the night, but he began having cramps in his right leg near the middle of the fourth quarter.
With Whatley’s time limited the rest of the game by the cramp, freshman JD Davis took over behind center, having scored on a 9-yard run in the second quarter to put Rockmart up 21-14 with just over a minute before halftime.
Rome’s defense, which had already been relentless throughout the evening, clamped down on the Jackets, and Davis was intercepted by the Wolves’ Martel Hight on a first-down throw.
Hight returned the pick 45 yards down to the Rockmart 11 before EJ Burks worked his way through the opposing defense and scored three plays later on a 4-yard scamper. Fernando Lopez-Romero’s fourth and final extra point kick put Rome on top, 28-21, with 6:07 left.
Whatley took his normal post on the Jackets’ kickoff return and took the kick 29 yards to the 40 before going 11 yards on a keeper to get into Rome territory. But the cramps returned and Davis came back in only to be hit by Rome’s Bryson Hill, which forced a fumble that was recovered by Wolves linebacker Brandon Smith.
With 3:16 left to play, Burks kept the ball moving on the following possession as Rockmart used its final two timeouts to try and conserve some clock. However, Ellard took a knee twice to run out the clock and seal the victory.
Whatley finished with 144 yards on 17 carries and a touchdown that came on a 12-yard marathon-style run off of a botched field goal attempt in the second quarter where he was the holder. He found Lanear McCrary on a 16-yard touchdown pass on fourth-and-4 to cap Rockmart’s opening drive.
“Javin is a phenomenal athlete. I think you’ve seen him going on four years that he’s gonna be the bell cow for what we do offensively, but you’ve got to give hats off to the little freshman that came in and made some plays. He’s fighting, he’s playing, and he’s gonna be a dang good one, and I’m so happy he’s here at Rockmart,” Parson said.
Rome quarterback Caleb Ellard threw a pair of acrobatic touchdown passes to receiver Jay Wise in the first quarter — both on one-play drives following interceptions. The senior then capped off a 97-yard drive with a 13-yard run for a score in the fourth that tied the game at 21 each with 11:13 left to play.
Rome High head coach John Reid said going up against a tough opponent to open the season has been a common occurrence in recent years.
“It seems like we always get a short straw. They are a very, very difficult offense to play against. I mean, misdirection, a tremendous quarterback, no back offense, receivers all over the place, and then you’ve got to play them without ever seeing them on game film,” Reid said. “So that’s why it’s a great win because that is difficult to play against. They know what they’re doing. And there’s people going everywhere, obviously.”
Senior running back Burks had 97 yards rushing on 16 carries, while Rome teammates Wise and Jameion Leath both had interceptions in the first quarter.
Rockmart is back at it Friday night hosting rival Cedartown in the Battle of Polk County, which will be the Bulldogs’ first game of the season after having to cancel their original first game because of COVID-19 protocol.