MONTGOMERY, Ala. -- It was a big a game, and it lived up to its billing.
Central won the first half by a long shot, though the halftime score was only 9-0. Its defense was dominant, and there was little doubt which was the better team.
Until the second half, that is.
Carver-Montgomery responded with two quick scores, one via the offense and one on a punt return, and suddenly the Wolverines had the lead. They held on for a 23-11 win, but there were plenty of twists and turns along the way.
Listen, Central has nothing to hang its head about. Sure, there will be things coaches have to point out in film study, mistakes the Red Devils made, things they could have done differently that maybe, just maybe, would have allowed them to hang on for a win.
But there are a lot of positives to check out in that film room, too.
The defense was stifling. Sure, the Wolverines scored 23 second-half points, but look at how they got them. Seven came via punt return, seven came on a 2-yard drive after an interception and three came on a stalled drive resulting in a field goal. Most of the time, Central defenders swarmed Carver's offensive threats.
Circle the name "Walter Pritchett," a defensive lineman for Central, from this game. He recorded two solo sacks, was in on another one with a group of Red Devils and hurried the quarterback on a number of occasions.
The loss does hurt because of the region implications. But it's one loss, and there is a whole season to make up for it. Central showed a couple of weaknesses, particularly on offense with four turnovers (though, to be fair, half of those came in desperation time), but it gave us plenty of reason to believe it can contend with the state's best.
This region is no cakewalk. That was made clear again on Thursday.
A couple other thoughts:
--Carver did a good job limiting Traveon Samuel. Samuel was able to make some plays, but the Wolverines were able to make sure it came when Central was desperate rather than in control. They kept him out of the end zone, and most of his yards came on one drive in the fourth quarter with the Red Devils trailing. Samuel also had a couple of miscues in the punt game, one fumble and one near fumble. That will be something for him to be careful about going forward.
--Kenneth Thomas certainly appears to be the guy grabbing the bulk of the carries at running back right now. He had a great game against Russell County and carried the most (aside from Samuel, who carried a bunch late int he game) on Thursday. On 12 carries, he had 63 yards, which is a decent average once again. I'm a little surprised they only gave Ryan Humphrey four carries (16 yards) in the game. His athleticism is very, very good.
--Don't let quarterback Ethan Baber's three interceptions fool you. He did some good things in the game. With a new quarterback, it's always a process. He looked pretty good for most of the first half, and his stat line looks fairly sub-par when you factor in the late interceptions coming when his offense was in desperation mode. As the season goes along, he'll realize his strengths and weaknesses a little bit better and be able to take advantage of the positives a little more frequently.
A look back at the four keys
Shaun Dion Hamilton
His name didn't light up the stat sheet, and Central was really able to do a handful of good things against the Carver defense. Consistency is a key, though, as Central often made a couple good plays, only to see its drive end with a negative.
No second chances
Central really was pretty good when it came to penalties. The real problem came down to giving up big plays in the second half. After backing up Carver to a third and goal from the 17-yard line, Central allowed a 17-yard touchdown pass. Shortly thereafter, a short punt bounced around the 35-yard line, and no one tried to down it. The result was a Carver player picking it up with no one within 7 yards of him, rolling easily to the end zone. These are plays you can't allow and still expect to win football games.
Gain momentum; keep momentum
Gain momentum? Check. Keep momentum? Eh.
The aforementioned two big plays really changed the game completely for the Red Devils. I was sitting in the box next to the Carver coaches, and their attitude change from the first half to the second was night and day. Again I say: You can't give up plays like that and expect to win. It changes the game's dynamic entirely.
Unlike like last week where I felt like Central was found lackluster in this area, I think the Red Devils came out with an intensity and will to win. Their preparation and their intensity in the game wasn't the problem at all. The ball bounced against them in the second half and Carver made a few more plays than they did. Most of the time, though, Central looked very good. I have no doubt it will continue to contend throughout the season.
Alright, that'll do it for this game. Central faces Opelika in another huge region showdown next week. A loss there would be devastating to its region title hopes, while a win would keep it firmly in the race.
This game is big.
Georgia and South Carolina fans out there can get a sense of the intensity and importance surrounding a game like this.
When Central heads back up Highway 85 tonight after its game at Carver-Montgomery, it will have either placed itself in the drivers seat heading into the rest of its region play or it could be playing catch-up.
No, it isnt the end all, be all. Last year, Central won this game 27-14 at home, but slipped to fourth in the region by the end of the regular season. It isnt everything, and coaches and players know there is plenty of time left no matter what happens.
But make no mistake, it is big.
In addition to the early region implications, these are two teams who can line up some really great talent.
We know all about Centrals stars, but we may forget a little bit about the Wolverines. Quarterback Jeremy Johnson, now with Auburn, is long gone, but there are still plenty of recruiting stars to be had.
There is four-star Shaun Dion Hamilton (committed to Alabama) and three-stars Draequon Murphy (uncommitted) and Jon Michael Edwards (Southern Miss) on the defense. Charles Standberry, a three-star Ole Miss wide receiver, will line up on offense. There are a handful of other talented players who are not as highly-touted, but dangerous nonetheless.
The expectation is that this game could be a classic, and the atmosphere among the two teams is equally intense. From the press box way up in the above the field in the Cramton Bowl, I can hear players from both teams pumping each other up.
Get ready for a good one.
1. Where is Hamilton?
Hamilton, a linebacker, figures to be good against the run. He can fill the gaps, but can also run sideline to sideline. In the running game, Central is likely to have its best success when it puts Traveon Samuel in space, however. As fast as Hamilton is, his athleticism doesnt match up with Centrals star athlete.
He is a solid but not elite defender in the passing game, so Central could try its luck with some mid-range throws across the middle. If the Red Devils can limit his impact in this game, they should have a chance at some success on offense.
2. No second chances
Russell County got second chances against Central last week, turning one major fourth-down penalty into seven points. That wont work against the Wolverines this week. If Central gets Carver-Montgomery into fourth-down situations, they simply cant ruin those with penalties. The Wolverines will take advantage, and that can be costly in a game like this.
3. Gain momentum; keep momentum
It isnt easy playing on the road. Not in a place like this. Not in a game like this. It will be important for Central to take the crowd out of the game early and maintain that momentum throughout the game. Dont let the Wolverines gain the upper hand in crowd support. This matchup is already hard enough.
This was a concern for the Red Devils throughout the week after they came up flat against Russell County last week. Coach Woodrow Lowe wasnt worried about it, though. He said it was something he addressed with the team, and the players understand how important that will be tonight. I expect Central to come out fired up.
Whether that translates to a win or not remains to be seen.
Alright, the players just headed to the locker room, and the game will kick off in about 24 minutes. Follow live on Twitter or at www.ledger-enquirer.com/high-school-sports.