The loss ends the Grangers’ season at 6-6, while Ridgeland moves to 11-1 and will face Mary Persons in its first-ever appearance in the third round of the playoffs.
Despite committing six turnovers, the Grangers were still in the hunt with less than two minutes to go and on the march, but Ridgeland came up with its third interception of the game at the 12-yard line.
Dillon Peterman stepped in front of LaGrange’s Dee Gates to intercept Zach Giddens’ pass from the 42-yard line with 1:37 left to seal the win for the Panthers.
LaGrange had no answer for Ridgeland’s stellar running game.
Seniors Darrell Bridges and Vonn Bell combined for nearly 400 yards on the ground.
Ridgeland only tried one pass the entire first half, and that was on the last play of the second quarter that LaGrange stopped on a sack.
Add to that the Grangers’ four fumbles, three of which were lost, and three interceptions that constantly shifted momentum away from LaGrange throughout the night, and it was enough for Ridgeland to escape with the win.
Still, LaGrange was in it all the way to the end.
“Tough way to end,” LaGrange head coach Donnie Branch said afterward. “We played a lot of good defense in the game. We caused some turnovers, did a bunch of good stuff.”
Branch also said “we had some bad series, and we had three guys get hurt which killed us.”
As disappointing as Friday’s loss was, Branch was glad to see the program turn the corner a bit this season.
After back-to-back losing seasons, the Grangers finished at .500 this season and won a playoff game for the first time since 2008.
“This senior class, I’m really proud of them,” Branch said. “They set the bar back where it needs to be, working our way through the playoffs. We’re going to miss them a lot. That’s the sad thing. These other guys will be back.
The coaches will be back, but we’re losing a bunch of great kids that kind of got our program going back in the right direction.”
In Friday’s game, things started out on a great note for LaGrange when Giddens hit running back Demoton Boyd for a 60-yard touchdown pass on the second play of the game to put the Grangers on top 7-0 after Michael Ward added the extra point kick.
The week before against Chestatee, Boyd ran 62 yards on the first play from scrimmage with only 13 second elapsed.
Ridgeland came right back on its opening series, putting together a drive that resulted in a 12-yard touchdown run to tie the game after the extra point kick with 6:15 left in the first quarter.
LaGrange’s turnover problems started on the ensuing series when Benny Gray coughed up the ball on the Granger 42-yard line to give the ball back to the Panthers with 4:53 in the first quarter.
Ridgeland turned that fumble into a 9-yard touchdown run and a 14-7 lead.
Three of Ridgeland’s touchdowns came as a result of LaGrange turnovers.
“If we don’t turn the ball over tonight, we win against a really good football team,” Branch said.
LaGrange got its second score of the game with 7:55 left in the second quarter when Boyd went over from two yards on a wide sweep that ended with him diving over the goal line in the corner.
The extra-point attempt went wide, leaving the Grangers down 14-13.
Ridgeland scored again on the ensuing possession on a 33-yard run, making it 21-13 with 4:22 left in the half.
Back came LaGrange, which put together a 57-yard drive of its own that ended with Gray scoring from one yard out.
That touchdown was set up by a pass interference call against Ridgeland when Giddens threw a pass to Dee Smith near the end zone.
LaGrange tied the game when Gray scored on a two-point conversion, and the half ended in at 21-21 tie.
Momentum swung drastically in Ridgeland’s favor in the third quarter.
Giddens threw his first interception of the game with 9:47 left in the third when he overthrew Smith and Ridgeland took over on its own 26.
The LaGrange defense forced a punt after three plays and received a huge gift from the Panthers when the ball was snapped over the punter’s head.
The Grangers recovered the ball on the 15-yard line with 7:42 in the third quarter.
LaGrange was unable to pick up a first down and came out in field-goal formation.
The Grangers faked the field goal.
Giddens, the holder, threw the ball into the end zone, but Ridgeland came up with the interception, and the Panthers went 82 yards for the go-ahead touchdown with two minutes left in the third quarter.
Things only got worse from there.
On the ensuing series, Giddens dropped back and was looking for an open receiver.
After finding nobody open, he was forced to scramble.
The junior quarterback had picked up a first down on the run, but it was all for nothing as he was hit with a bone-jarring tackle that forced the ball loose.
Ridgeland recovered on its own 47 with 59 seconds left in the quarter.
Again, Ridgeland turned the opportunity into points, scoring on a 42 yard run with 20 seconds left in the third quarter for a 35-21 lead.
Even though things weren’t going LaGrange’s way, Ridgeland head coach Mark Mariakis knew the game was a long way from over.
“We knew they were a good offensive team and that they would never quit,” Mariakis told the newspaper in Chattanooga.
Mariakis was right.
Down 14 after the demoralizing turn of events, the Grangers’ resolve was still alive.
Giddens hit Smith on a slant over the middle good for 40 yards and the ball on the Panthers’ 20-yard line as time ticked away in the third quarter.
Giddens then lofted a 20-yard pass to Clete Miller that perfectly led the senior in the end zone, with Miller never breaking stride to pull LaGrange back to within seven as Ward kicked the extra point with no time showing on the clock to end the third quarter.
LaGrange’s momentum was short-lived as Ridgeland’s ground game was unstoppable.
Between Bridges and Bell, the Panther runners seemed like they had grease on their uniforms, slipping away from tacklers, gaining yardage in huge chunks and ending the drive with a Bell 21-yard touchdown run to put Ridgeland up 41-28 after the extra-point kick was blocked.
A difficult situation got even worse for LaGrange on the ensuing kickoff.
Ridgeland kicked off and the ball skipped by Smith near the end zone. Smith picked up the ball on the 2-yard line, then jogged in to the end zone and downed the ball. Instead of getting the ball on the 20 yard line, game officials ruled Smith down at the 2.
Branch argued, but to no avail, and LaGrange began the possession a few yards from its own end zone.
The Grangers were able to put the turn of events behind them and come up with another score to close the gap to seven when Giddens hit Gray on a 34-yard pass play that saw the junior muscle and carry several Ridgeland defenders on his back as he tumbled into the end zone with 5:52 left in the game.
Trailing 41-34, the Grangers needed a defensive stop, and they got one after Ridgeland picked up a pair of first downs.
After a punt, the Grangers took over at their own 20-yard line with 2:54 left.
LaGrange moved the ball to the Ridgeland 42, with Giddens working the sidelines and the Grangers mixing in a pair of running plays that gained a pair of first downs.
With 1:37 left, Giddens dropped back and heaved a pass toward Gates.
The ball was a tad under thrown, and a tad is all Dillon Peterman would need to step in front of Gates, basically blocking any attempt to regain the position he needed to make a reception.
The interception stopped the drive, and with no way for the Grangers to stop the clock, Ridgeland sat on the ball as time expired.
Branch appreciated the no-quit attitude his players gave all night.
“I’ll tell you though tonight was different than any other nights,” Branch said. “We fought, we fought. When it’s been going bad, we’ve kind of given in a little bit. Tonight we never gave in. Our kids thought they were going to win the football game right up until they threw the interception.”