Eighty five yards away from a trip to the state championship game. A steady rain, seemingly getting heavier by the minute. A frustrating second half of football against the perennial state champion contenders.
Yep, none of those things could keep quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa, running back Shadrick Byrd and their Thompson High teammates from marching into the record books with an incredible come-from-behind 31-28 victory over Hoover in the AHSAA Class 7A semifinals at the Hoover Met.
“You just keep believing until the clock runs out,” said Thompson head coach Mark Freeman, whose team will play top-ranked Central-Phenix City in the state championship game on Dec. 5 at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
It was Byrd who scored the go-ahead touchdown with 21 seconds remaining, shrugging off a tackler in the backfield and bursting three yards for the score. It was Tre Roberson following with a two-point conversion run.
But, the real story of the drive was the way Tagovailoa, who was banged up a bit after taking a big hit earlier in the fourth quarter, willed the Warriors offense down the field on 10 plays.
The game-winning drive began with 2:07 on the clock and the ball sitting at the Warriors 15-yard line. Tagovailoa bought time on first down, drifting to his left, before connecting with Chris Hopkins for a 23-yard gain. On the next play, Tagovailoa threw a deep ball toward A.J. Bonham, who walled off a defender and gathered in the pass for a 40-yard gain to the Hoover 28-yard line.
From there, things slowed down. Thompson (11-1) sandwiched a pair of incomplete passes around an 8-yard pass from Tagovailoa to Byrd. Tagovailoa then gave the Warriors a first down with a 3-yard rush on 4th-and-2. Two plays after that, Tagovailoa scrambled 14 yards to the Hoover 3-yard line, setting up Byrd’s game-winner.
“We do that every day at practice,” Freeman said. “There was no two-minute (offense). We just do what we do every day. Let’s go make some plays and, if we’ve got a shot, take a shot. It worked out great.”
It was up to the Thompson kickoff team and defense to close out the school’s first playoff semifinal victory since 1982. Both of them did a superb job of doing just that.
On the kickoff, Evan McGuire sailed the ball deep and a wall of defenders surrounded dangerous returner George Pickens after he bobbled the ball. Owen May kept Pickens from getting outside, turning him back inside, and Samuel Reynolds and D.J. Douglas dragged the Hoover receiver down at the 3-yard line. On the next play, Thompson cornerback Jalen Bustamante intercepted a deep pass, his second pick of the game, to seal the win.
Early on, though, it didn’t look like late-game heroics were needed. Freeman unleashed an offensive game plan that called for a heavy dose of the ground game. It worked to perfection with Byrd and Jarrett Crockett chewing up yardage and getting into the end zone. Byrd scored on a 3-yard touchdown at the end of Thompson’s first possession, scoring on the heels of a 31-yard run by Crockett. Byrd scored again with 10:47 left in the second quarter, giving the Warriors a 14-0 lead on a 13-yard run.
Hoover trimmed the deficit in half on a 10-yard run by Robby Ashford before McGuire’s 24-yard field goal gave the Warriors a 17-7 advantage.
Bustamante grabbed an interception on the next play but the momentum swung toward Hoover soon afterwards. Thompson lost five yards on the next three plays and then failed on a fourth down pass, giving the Bucs the ball at midfield. Six plays later, Ashford scored on a 6-yard run to cut the deficit to 17-14 with 1:11 left in the half.
Hoover scored on an 18-yard pass from Ashford to Larry McCammon on the Bucs’ opening possession of the second half. The Bucs then padded the 21-17 advantage by blocking a punt and recovering in the end zone with 4:11 left in the third quarter.
It stayed that way until Tagovailoa midway through the final quarter. The Warriors gutted their way through nine-play, 80-yard drive that included a pair of fourth down conversions, including a 56-yard touchdown strike from Tagovailoa to Bonham on 4th-and-8. The two-point conversion attempt failed but the Warriors were back within one score.
The defense got the ball back to the offense quickly. The big play came on 3rd-and-1 when defensive lineman Mekhi Dembo surged into the backfield, blowing up the play long enough for Douglas to swoop in to tackle McCammon behind the line of scrimmage. The offense was unable to move the ball, though, and punted the ball back to the Bucs.
Once again, the Thompson defense was up to the challenge with linebacker Will Conner beginning things by tackling McCammon for a six-yard loss on first down. The Bucs eventually punted the ball back to set up the game-winning drive.
“Our kids played their tails off,” Freeman said. “What a great night for our program. I’m super proud of our effort. Our defense did a great job getting us a stop late, when we needed it, and our offense did their job and punched it in.”
He then took a glance ahead, even though the celebration was just beginning.
“We are excited to be headed to the state championship game,” he added. “Our kids have worked extremely hard and this is a great night.”