By Tim Chambers
Johnson County’s storybook season added another chapter against Unicoi County on Friday before a packed crowd inside of Paul McEwen Stadium. The “Historic Horns” won the first ever Mountain Six Conference outright with an impressive 28-14 win over the Blue Devils, capping off a 10-0 season for the first time in school history.
Their 10 wins eclipsed that of the 1958 Horns by three, the only other undefeated team during the regular season in school history.
Longhorns’ jubilant head coach Don Kerley was happy about how his team performed in a playoff type atmosphere. He praised their efforts and the efforts of his entire coaching staff.
“They’ve worked all year long to reach this milestone,” said Kerley. “I’ve got a great staff and they have put in a lot of time and the kids have worked hard in the weight room and during the offseason. They’ve heard stories about the 88 team from us and others and they were determined to win the conference and host a first round playoff game. Going 10-0 in the regular season is a first up here. I’m happy for our kids, the school and our community. It’s something that none of them will ever forget.”
The game was a series of highs and lows for the Longhorns in the early going.
Unicoi County fumbled the opening kickoff and Johnson County recovered it at the 16. That definitely got the crowd pumped. They became deflated after a crucial penalty and sack allowed the Devils to take over on downs at the 37.
Hard luck continued for the Horns when a 29-yard touchdown run got wiped off due to a penalty. They followed that up with an interception allowing the Devils to escape by the skin of their teeth for a second time.
Things got better for the Longhorns on their following possession on a play that set the tone for the game. Zack Eller stopped a Blue Devil drive with the first of his two interceptions. Next came a little icing on the cake.
Shane Greer outran the Blue Devils secondary and hauled in a 77-yard touchdown pass from Nathan Arnold. This gave the Longhorns a 6-0 lead with 8 seconds remaining in the first quarter.
“It was a double move so I ran one route and made another move off of that,” said Greer. “Once I made the second move the defender sort of fell down. The line gave Nathan protection and he made a great throw. That gave us the momentum and the defense stopped them on their next drive. We just got rolling from there.”
The defense continued to shine by creating a second turnover. A strong pass rush allowed Eller to pick off another Brock Thompson pass giving Johnson County possession near midfield.
“We were dropping back two deep to take away the long pass,” said Eller. “I think they got a little frustrated when they couldn’t throw the long ball on us. Our goal was to shut down their two receivers because they had a size advantage. Everyone stepped up and made plays. Our offense did a good job of capitalizing off their turnovers.”
Eller’s comments hit the nail on the head.
His pick set up an electrifying 22-yard touchdown run by Troy “the bull” Arnold on a screen pass from Nathan Arnold. The Longhorns led 12-0 after the missed 2-point conversion attempt with 3:07 remaining in the quarter.
Unicoi County scored with 34 seconds remaining in the half on a 3-yard run by Brett Strother. Martin Porras added the PAT edging his team closer at 12-7.
That seemed to light a fire under the Longhorns as they came back out in the second half with a different swagger.
Linebacker Tyler Norris got things started by sacking Kody Lewis in the end zone for a safety. Bud Icenhour followed with a 24-yard kickoff return that gave them possession at the Devils’ 38.
They capped off a nine-play drive with a 1-yard touchdown pass from Arnold to Gage Hampton. The duo had hooked up earlier on a 20-yard reception that got them inside the red zone at the 15.
“We felt like if we got low and made plays that they would turn it over,” said Norris who ended the night with 13 tackles and a sack. “We wanted to get pressure on their quarterback and not allow him time to throw.”
Tyrone McFadden kicked the extra point for a 21-7 lead yet the big plays kept coming.
The defense continued to make the blue collar plays and the offense capped it off in business-like fashion.
Josh Herman’s hit on a Blue Devil’s runner caused a fumble that was recovered by Eller. Troy Arnold’s 3-yard run stretched their advantage at 28-7 with 11:13 remaining after McFadden’s PAT.
Thompson scored Unicoi’s final TD on a 2-yard run with 7:52 remaining. The Blue Devils had one final drive but were stopped at the Longhorns’ 24. Pressure from Hayden Osborne, Will Kerley and Cameron Clawson caused the Devils to rush their final three pass attempts. R.J. Snyder’s jarring tackle for a loss on first down forced them into a passing situation.
Hampton’s 12-yard run on first down enabled Johnson County to milk away the final minute of the game that set off a jubilant celebration.
Arnold capped off senior night with a spectacular performance completing 17-of-25 passes for 276 yards and three touchdowns.
“This win means a lot because we wanted to do it for coach Kerley, the assistant coaches and ourselves,” said Arnold. “When you go 5-5- and 4-6 as a starter the past two seasons you don’t feel that well. We came into our senior year with confidence and wanted to push forward. Our goal was to finish the regular season 10-0. We now have to put this behind us and get ready for the playoffs.”
Several seniors made their final regular season game one to remember.
Greer had five catches for 140 for a touchdown. Hampton caught six passes for 70 yards and rushed for 55 more, giving him 125 all purpose yards and scored a TD. Icenhour had 45 return yards and caught three passes for 32 yards.
Hayden Osborne collected 12 tackles, two for losses. He gave props to the secondary play of Eller, Caden Arnold, Nathan Lane, Jimmy Bower, Will Kerley and Josh Herman for making things tough on the Blue Devils.
“Their play really helped the rest of us out tonight,” said Osborne. “They covered their big receivers well all night long. We were putting pressure on them and didn’t give them a whole lot on the ground. Our offense made big plays and they didn’t. That was the difference in the game.”
Eller had a fumble recovery, two interceptions and blocked a pass to cap off his stellar night. Snyder and Lane added six tackles each. Cameron Clawson and Will Kerley collected five tackles apiece. Sam Kerley contributed a sack and quarterback hurry.
It was a total team effort for the Horns who got some good line play from Nate Shepherd, Hunter Wright, Christian Krupsky, Dylan Shepherd and Jordan Edes-King.
Kerley agreed that everyone had a hand in the win.
“We play a lot of kids and that’s helped us win a bunch of games. I thought we wore them down in the second half when we got the 21-point lead. I couldn’t ask for a better group of kids to work with. We’ve still got a lot left to play for.”
Johnson County 28, Unicoi County 14
Unicoi County 0 7 0 7 — 14
Johnson County 6 6 9 7 — 21
JC—Greer 77 pass from N. Arnold (kick failed) .08
JC—T. Arnold 22 pass from N. Arnold (pass failed) 3:07
UC—Strother 3 run (Porras kick) .34
JC—Norris (safety) 5:40
JC—Hampton 1 pass from N. Arnold (McFadden kick) 1:13
JC—T. Arnold 3 run (McFadden kick) 11:13
UC—Thompson 3 run (Porras kick) 7:53
1st Downs UC 10 JC 17
Rushing yards UC 16-53 JC 30-110
Passes A/C/I UC 12-27-2 JC 17-25-1
Passing Yards UC 115 JC 279
Total Offense UC 171 JC 389
Fumbles UC 2-1 JC 1-0
Punts UC 2-21 JC 1-47
Penalties UC 10-81 JC 14-125
Rushing: JC— Hampton 14-55, T. Arnold 4-40, N. Arnold 6-15, C. Arnold 1-5, Icenhour 5-(-5).
UC—Lewis 8-43, Podvin 3-15, Thompson 4-0, Nicholson 1-(-5)
Passing: JC—N. Arnold 17-25-1 276, Thompson 12-27-2 115
Receiving: JC—Greer 5-140, Hampton 6-70, Icenhour 3-33, T. Arnold 1-22, Eller 1-12, C. Arnold 1-2.
UC—Strothers 5-51, Nicholson 3-28, Podvin 3-28, Higgins 1-13, Lewis1-(-5)
Sacks: JC—S. Kerley, Norris, Clawson, W. Kerley
Fumble Recoveries: JC—Eller
Interceptions: JC—Eller 2, UC–Hensley
Tackles (JC only, 3 or more) Norris 13, Osborne 12, Snyder 6, Lane 6, Clawson 5, W. Kerley 5, Eller 3, S. Kerley 3, Edes-King 3.
UC—(Leaders) Smith 10, Higgins 9, Armstrong 8