By MIKE HUTCHENS
Special to The Messenger
Union City’s long trip to Adamsville Friday night didn’t seem like nearly such a lengthy ride home.
The Golden Tornadoes gave first-year head coach Nick Markle his first Purple and Gold victory and made the trek worthwhile by knocking off the eighth-ranked Cardinals 35-28 in the Region 7-2A opener for both teams.
Quarterback Wes Tilghman scored the last two of his three touchdowns in the fourth quarter as UC rallied from a halftime deficit in rolling up more than 400 yards of total offense for its first win of the season.
Both Travon Westbrook (17-144) and Tilghman (20-138) cracked the century mark on the ground behind the steady offensive line play of Carter Bondurant, Neil Brown, Jason Bone, Hayden Kennedy and Evan Alexander.
And the Tornado defense — after being burned by A’ville QB Lathan Morris for three touchdowns in the first half — settled in and allowed just 129 yards after the intermission while coming up with a pair of key fourth-down stops and a turnover.
“It’s great to be Golden Tornado,” grinned Markle afterward. “I’m so proud of our guys, especially our seniors. They didn’t sulk or pout after last week (a 35-3 loss to USJ), and we probably had the best week of practice that we’ve had all summer leading up to the game. They really worked hard and you saw the results of that labor tonight.”
Down 21-14 at the break after the Cardinals had scored in the final 35 seconds of the second quarter, UC scored on consecutive possessions in the third period – just as it did to open the contest.
The beneficiary of a bad snap on fourth down as the host team was threatening to go up by two scores after advancing to the Twister 22, Union City immediately took advantage of its good fortune.
Westbrook rambled 37 yards on first down and Tilghman then hooked up with James Burcham, who made a splendid catch of a high pass for a 22-yard gain. On the next play, sophomore Gage Smith bolted over left guard for a touchdown, with Miguel Sanchez evening the count with the third of his five made PATs.
The Redbirds were on the move again on their next series before Kennedy hopped on a fumble at his team’s 29. A nice run by Durrell Littleton and a 35-yard pick-up by Tilghman set the stage for a go-ahead two-yard TD by Tilghman with a minute gone in the fourth quarter.
The UC defense then made its third key stop of the second half when Westbrook blasted an Adamsville receiver five yards short of a first down on a 4th-and-21.
Union City then essentially iced the outcome six plays later when Tilghman darted over right guard on a keeper for his third score with 1:58 showing.
“I thought we obviously ran the ball really well,” Markle continued. “We got back in the flex bone tonight and that’s something we’ve been repping for several weeks. The guys were very familiar with it and hopped right back in it. The big thing, though, is we didn’t fumble.
“Defensively, we didn’t make a lot of adjustments at the half, other than widening our linebackers a little to try to cover up for some of our young guys in the secondary. We came up big in a couple of series and gave ourselves a chance to come back.”
UC opened the game with a 14-play, 81-yard scoring drive that ate up eight minutes and ended with Westbrook bowling his way into the endzone from the two.
After Adamsville evened the count at 7, the Twisters scored again with Tilghman the triggerman on a 17-yard pass to Jonathon Stone and then keeping for gains of 16 and 13 yards. The senior signal-caller then fought his way to paydirt on a gritty 12-yard TD scamper, breaking three tackles along the way.
“The big thing is that this was a region win … a region win against a good football team on the road,” Markle concluded. “That’s huge. I was really glad to see all the excitement and enthusiasm from our kids, both when we were ahead and when we fell behind.
“It’s high school football, and at the end of the day, you want your kids to have fun. The best thing about football is being a good teammate. One of the things I saw in some films last year is that kids didn’t seem to get excited when we made touchdowns or made a big play on defense. Those things are difficult. You work hard all week in practice and getting in the endzone or making a stop or creating a turnover is the paycheck.
“It was really good to see our kids enjoy that.”
Westbrook topped the UC tackle chart with seven stops, while Kennedy was credited with six total hits. Smith, Stone and Donovan Martinez had five tackles each.
The Tornadoes play host to Fulton County next week in the Pilots’ season opener.
Mike Hutchens is communications director for Union City Schools.
The Messenger office will be closed on Monday. This report, with game statistics, will appear in Tuesday’s print edition.