Horns play strong offense but still lose
By Jonathan PleasantThe Longhorns played some strong offense at Friday night’s homecoming matchup against the Sullivan North Golden Raiders, putting up more points than they have all season with two passing touchdowns, an amazing second quarter effort from junior Jordan Grubb on the carry, and a two point conversion. The Raiders are ranked sixth in the state for a reason, and despite Johnson County’s best efforts, the final victory went to North.
“We planned for everything they did, but we just couldn’t stop them,” said Head Coach Mike Atwood. “I knew going in that if they were going to rush for that many yards it was going to be a long night for us. They are good kids, good players, and that’s a good Sullivan North football team. Every time we did anything to get some momentum they answered back. This was just a tough game for us.”
Even with the loss, the game was full of exciting plays that kept fans on both sides well entertained. Junior Warren Kerley was back on the field in his much-accustomed position as quarterback, but there were a few surprises as well as number Chase Phillips took to the field and nailed several astounding catches for the Longhorn offense. Phillips, a junior who is better known for his talents on the basketball court, made a huge impression for his first actual time live in a game.
“Phillips did everything we wanted him to do,” Coach Atwood said. “He’s going to make it more difficult for them to defend against the pass and that should open up the run a little bit. We’re going to have to get him in the ballgame more often.”
Besides making well over 50 yards receiving off of two separate plays in the second and third quarters, Phillips also landed a 48-yard punt return and claimed the two-point conversion late in the fourth. Although he has been on the roster for most of the season, Phillips has been largely held back, only seeing playing time when called in to punt. However, as a generally talented athlete Phillips has been eagerly awaiting an opportunity to test his abilities. “I begged the coach these first few games to let me get out there and try,” Phillips said after the game. “Tonight I got my one chance and I just wanted show them I could do it and get out there a few times and help the offense.”
Johnson County faced a few missed opportunities to score as well. Receiver Greg Roark made several huge plays including one compound play late in the second where he played middle man, receiving a pass from Kerley and then sending it on to Patrick South who ran the ball for another 16 yards. Despite this success there were two very big catches early in the game that fell just short of their mark. Had those passes been completed, Johnson County might have made the end zone once or twice more. Yet, even with those few critical mistakes Coach Atwood seemed pleased with the boys’ efforts.
“We feel like if we had made some of those catches we could have gone into halftime with the lead,” Atwood said. “We kind of figured we’d have to throw the ball against them, we’ve been planning for that, but everybody is going to drop a few passes. There’s nothing you can really do about that. It was just bad luck for us, but Roark caught a lot of big passes too. We’ll be alright.”
The missed opportunities on the offense aside, the real problem of the whole game was trying to stop the Raiders on the defense. For the first quarter Johnson County was fairly solid, forcing North to punt from their own 28-yard line with clean stops from players like Robert Bowers. Yet, from the second quarter on, the Longhorns struggled to prevent the Raiders from making big plays and as a consequence North was within field goal range before the first two minutes had come off the clock. Although Johnson County’s defense did force North to make the kick from the 15-yard line, the Raiders were still able to take the imitative 0-3.
The Raiders were able to put up another full touchdown before the half thanks to a series of huge runs that slipped through the gaps in the Longhorn’s armor. According to Atwood, “We didn’t tackle well. They just played well and we didn’t play very good on defense. They really had four key players. They had two full backs, and both their running backs are good. But we dropped a few balls and missed a lot of tackles and that’s not a good combination.”
The one bright spot of the second quarter was a huge drive that began with a recovered fumble. With just seconds left on the clock, the Longhorns were able to bring the ball all the way in from the 45-yard line and eventually put Jordan Grubb in place to make an amazing leap into the end zone, directly between two of North’s defenders. That massive effort left Johnson County trailing 7-10 with the extra kick, and hoping for better luck in the third.
It didn’t take long to see that the Longhorns were in for a big challenge as the Raiders pulled out back-to-back touchdowns. Only one of those went answered by the Johnson County offense as Phillips made one of his big catches of the night to gain 20 yards and the Longhorn’s second advancement on the scoreboard with just under two minutes in the quarter. Gaining the extra point kick, Johnson County came into the fourth trailing 14-22.
Knowing that it was now or never, the Longhorns fought valiantly at the beginning of the quarter but could not stop North from getting into position to score again. Things only got worse as the Raiders intercepted a critical pass and turned it into yet another touchdown. Now at 14-36, the chances of pulling out a win were growing slimmer, but Johnson County continued to fight. With just over three minutes left in the game, Kerley connected with a pass to senior Kevin Dempsey and then followed up with a conversion pass to Phillips.
At 22-36, the Longhorns desperately needed to gain one more touchdown to even be within range of a win, but with only a couple minutes left on the clock North began to intentionally delay the game. Taking their penalties in stride, the Longhorns were forced to watch as the Raiders quickly ate away at the hopes of a miraculous turn around. With North finally using up the last few seconds on the board Johnson County ultimately had to settle with a hard fought but disappointing loss.
For players like quarterback Warren Kerley, the game was far from the homecoming win everyone hoped for, but also an opportunity to look ahead. “If we would have scored in that first drive it probably would have changed the whole ball game,” Kerley said. “We just beat ourselves. The offense did all right; we had a few things, but the whole team overall made too many mistakes. We’ve got to come back next week and work hard. We know we can win, we’ve just got to put this behind us and get ready for Unicoi.”
Johnson County 22
Sullivan North 36