Westlake 26, Langston Hughes 21

High school football

Credit: For the AJC

Credit: For the AJC

One sign of a good team is being able to win a game when you don’t play your best. Westlake proved that to be true again on Friday night.

The Lions, ranked No. 6 in Class 6A, overcame turnovers, lackluster play on offense, and a feisty neighborhood and region rival looking to prove itself, in a 26-21 win over Langston Hughes. Westlake improved to 4-1, 1-0 in Region 4, while it was the first loss of the season for the Panthers (4-1, 0-1), who had begun the season 4-0 for the first time since the program began in 2009.

“It was big to get this one, a region game against a rival,” said Westlake head coach Brian May. “Our offense put our defense in some bad spots and we didn’t run the ball as well as we should have. [The score] 26-21 doesn’t look as pretty, but we’ll take this win.”

Both May and Hughes head coach Daniel Williams thought the game could have been a blowout, but had different perspectives. From May’s point of view, a missed opportunity in the first quarter was telling as the Lions drove inside the Panthers' 10-yard line but fumbled and came away empty.

“I think if we score there, it would have been a different game,” May said. “But it gave them some confidence.”

The way Williams saw it, his team could have given up after going into the fourth quarter trailing by three scores.

“Our kids could have put their heads down and it could have easily become 46-7,” said Williams, in his second season. “But our defense bowed up and we had a freshman quarterback come in and throw two touchdowns to give us a chance.”

Late in the third quarter, Westlake led 20-7 on the strength of touchdown runs by Zina Mulbah and Jacobi Gilbert, and a kickoff return by DeMarko Williams. The Panthers were moving the ball and were in Lion territory, but fumbled and Westlake cornerback Avieon Terrell grabbed the ball and returned it for a touchdown. A two-point conversion attempt failed, but the Lions held a 26-7 lead.

A short punt by Westlake gave Hughes the ball at the Lions' 45-yard line. A 32-yard completion from junior quarterback Xavier Smith to senior Marquez Cowins gave the Panthers a first-and-goal at the Westlake 10-yard line. On fourth-and-goal from the 2, sophomore Jamarion Harris turned the corner and scored, but the play was nullified by a false start penalty. On the next play Smith threw an incompletion under heavy pressure from the Lion defense.

Westlake failed to move the ball again and this time, after a short punt and a penalty on the return, Hughes took over at the Lions' 30-yard line. Freshman Prentiss “Air” Noland led a quick three-play drive and hit sophomore CJ Lockhart III in the back of the end zone for a 12-yard touchdown to narrow the gap to 26-14 with a little over five minutes remaining.

The Lions moved the ball into Hughes territory but turned the ball over on downs at the Panthers' 40-yard line. Noland capped an eight-play, 60-yard drive – which was aided by a late hit penalty on third-and-eight – with an 8-yard touchdown pass to Terrance Love with 59 seconds to play.

But the comeback was snuffed out when the Lions easily recovered an onside kick attempt by Hughes and ran out the clock.

“Westlake has a high-powered offense and we were able to hold them down,” Williams said of his team, which finished 2-8 last season. “Nobody expected us to be where we are. We’ll learn from this game and try to keep getting better.”

The Panthers' comeback was aided a bit by the fact that several backups were in the game for the last two drives. In order to make a run into the post season, May wants to develop more depth on the roster and wanted to get some of his subs into a meaningful game.

“We’re up 26-7, but I feel like you’re only as good as your backups,” May said. "At some point those guys are going to have to come in and contribute. We gave up a couple of late touchdowns, but we got those kids got some playing time. I’ll take that.

“We haven’t played a complete game yet,” May said. “Last week we played well on offense, this week I thought we played well defensively. We’re starting to get fully healthy, so I’m looking forward to us playing well on both sides of the ball.”

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