Johnson Countys second playoff run in school history started off strong in Knoxville, but soon came to a crashing halt after a few critical mistakes in the third quarter. Taking on the Christian Academy of Knoxville (CAK) Warriors, the Longhorns knew they would be facing a huge challenge but continued to strive all evening long.
We did some good things in the first half, said head coach Mike Atwood. It was 21-6, probably should have been 21-14, but really 21 to 6 at halftime is not that bad. We dropped a few balls there in the first half that hurt us. I thought we had a chance to score at least one more time but we just gave up big plays on third and fourth downs again on defense. We played hard and we felt like we had a chance to be in the ball game but that was a good team and they just outplayed us tonight.
The game started in Johnson Countys favor, first by winning the toss, and then by a very solid early showing from the defense that kept the Warriors off the board for the majority of the first quarter. CAK proved to be very adaptive, quickly learning the Longhorns strategy and ultimately living up to their reputation as one of the better passing teams in the region. In fact, all of the Warriors scoring plays up through the third quarter were made by long range throws that went well over the middle of the line, often 35 yards or more. In contrast, the Longhorns offense was forced to rely on their ground game, something that the Warriors quickly picked up on.
We just made too many mistakes to win the ball game, said Coach Atwood. We tried to get pressure on them but we couldnt. Our linebackers couldnt drop fast enough to stop that. We were trying to pressure the quarterback but they just have a good offensive line and we couldnt get to him. We dropped a few passes that we usually catch and they started blitzing a lot and shut down the running game. If you cant pass it when they blitz on you, youre in trouble.
CAKs first touchdown came at the four-minute mark of the first quarter, when the Warriors launched a 35-yard pass straight into the end zone. Johnson County was able to come back with a quick answer thanks to some amazing drives by both Jordan Grubb and Patrick South. Aided by a short pass to Kevin Dempsey, South put the Longhorns on the scoreboard with a huge 25-yard run straight down the middle. Hoping to get a critical lead, Johnson County opted to attempt the two- point conversion but failed to cross the line by just inches.
Now at 6-7 there was hope that the defense would be able to gain a much-needed fourth down stop, but there was simply very little Johnson County could do to shut down CAKs quarterback. Just a couple of minutes into the second quarter the Warriors landed yet another huge pass that resulted in a run across the goal line. Relying heavily on Grubb and South, the offense fought valiantly to come up with another scoring run of their own, at one point gaining a first down on a fourth and second. That drive continued all the way down to the 20-yard line, before a series of bad passes forced a turnover.
The defense did well on CAKs third possession, gaining a third and 26 after the Warriors received a penalty for holding. Even one throw from CAK can result in disaster, and Johnson County was soon faced with two back to back. The first throw was more than enough to eat up the 26 yards to gain a first down, and the second finished the drive off with a trip to the end zone that put the score at 21-6.
With five minutes remaining it looked as though the game was going to turn into a run away, but in those last moments before the half the Longhorn defense stepped up and played their best in the game. After blocking several critical pass attempts, sophomore Alex Tressler made a huge interception to give the ball back to Johnson County. With less than a minute on the clock the Longhorns didnt have time to score, but they did leave the field with renewed sense of optimism. As Coach Atwood pointed out, things just as quickly took a turn for the worse in the third quarter.
We started the third quarter like we wanted to, Atwood said. We kicked to them, stopped them, got the ball and got a first down, and was on our way to another first down when we fumbled. That was the turning point. We had a fumble on a third down and that killed us. We were in a bad position and we cant afford to make mistakes. We just had too many mistakes for a ball game like this.
That disastrous turnover set the pace of the game, soon giving way to three more CAK touchdowns that turned a challenging but winnable game into a struggle to finish. With the lead well in hand at 42-6, the Warriors began putting in some of their second string roster, which gave Johnson County just enough edge to begin making headway. By the very end of the third, receiver Greg Roark was able to make a huge 39-yard catch that allowed South to run in a touchdown on the next play.
A quickly recovered CAK fumble gave the ball back to Johnson County who utilized quarterback Warren Kerley to make another big 49-yard play to Roark for a third touchdown on the evening. Now at 42-19, the gap between the lead was still high but Johnson County was able to save face. These late game advances did little in the end as the Warriors continued to climb with their own touchdowns, ultimately making two more scores late in the fourth quarter.
With the Longhorns still stranded, the final score came down to a disappointing 19-56 loss, effectively ending hopes of making school history. Yet, regardless of the final outcome Johnson County did make a solid run this season, winning their first ever playoff game on the road against Chucky Doak, and besting local rivals such as Hampton and Unicoi. For senior players like Patrick South, who has been arguably one of the most critical offensive weapons in the Longhorns lineup this season, the defeat was tough to swallow, but was also just one bad spot on an otherwise long and colorful career.
Patrick has been tough all year, hes always played solid, played well, runs hard, and gives 100 percent every time he plays, Coach Atwood said. I hate it for him. Hes one of our five seniors, and I hate that we had to go out like this but he went out playing hard, playing a good game. You cant ever have enough kids like him. It was good for our program, good for the school. I just hate that we didnt get to take another step but this was a big game for us. Its tough until theyve been here a few times. Unless youve just got a great football team the first time you do anything its tough.