Brett Strother is surrounded by Johnson County defenders during the Blue Devils’ loss in Mountain City on Friday, Oct. 27. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Keeli Parkey)

By Keeli Parkey

The Unicoi County High School football team fought hard, but couldn’t make plays when they needed to in order to earn a win – one that would have given them a share of the Region 1-AAA regular season title – last week.

The Blue Devils (5-5, 3-2) closed out the regular season with a 28-14 loss to Johnson County (10-0, 5-0) in Mountain City on Friday, Oct. 27.

“I am proud of the fight we showed,” UCHS head coach Drew Rice said. “Johnson County is a very good football team and I thought we went toe-to-toe with them. We just had some turnovers at the wrong time, and had some things that didn’t go our way.”

The Blue Devils started the game off on a negative note – with a fumble on the opening kickoff. This gave the Longhorns great field position; however, the UCHS defense held strong and kept Johnson County off the scoreboard.

Throughout the quarter, the teams traded possessions until the Longhorns took advantage of their interception to score on a 70-yard touchdown pass by Nathan Arnold with 8 seconds to play in the quarter. The point-after attempt (PAT) was blocked and Johnson County took a 6-0 lead.

The Longhorns snagged another interception in the second quarter, which set up their second score of the half, this time on a 21-yard pass from Arnold to Payton Fenner. The Longhorns’ 2-point conversion attempt failed and the score was 12-0with 3 minutes to play in the half.

The Blue Devils finally got things going offensively. After quarterback Brock Thompson hit Owen Nicholson on a 21-yard pass, he hit Brett Strother for an 18-yard gain to get UCHS down to the 11-yard line. Thompson then completed passes to Hunter Higgins before the Blue Devils scored on a handoff to Strother. Martin Porras converted the PAT and UCHS was back in the game, trailing only 12-7.

“The touchdown before the half was huge,” Rice said. “I felt like despite being down 12-7, we had the momentum going into the half.”

After forcing the Longhorns to punt on their first possession of the third quarter, things began to unravel for the Blue Devils. A penalty against UCHS backed them up against the goal line and led to a safety by the Longhorns for a 14-7 lead with just under 6 minutes to play in the quarter.

UCHS then had to kick off to Johnson County. The Blue Devil defense forced the Longhorns into a third-and-8, but just as they would do most of the game, the Longhorns found a way to keep their drive alive.

“They found a way to move the chains on third down,” Rice said. “We would get them to third-and-8 or third-and-7 and they would complete a 9-yard pass. It’s definitely frustrating, but I have to tip my hat to them because that’s why they are 10-0.”

The Longhorns scored when Arnold found Gage Hampton from 1-yard out. Tyler Norris converted the PAT and Johnson County took a 21-7 lead with 1 minute to play in the half.

The Blue Devils wouldn’t have possession long – a fumble was recovered by the Longhorns near midfield to give them the ball back to start the fourth quarter.

“In the second half, the fumble we had really hurt us,” Rice said.

Once again, Johnson County took advantage of the turnover – this time on a 5-play scoring drive to take a 28-7 lead with 11 minutes to play in the game.

Just as they have done all season, the Blue Devils kept fighting to get back in the game. They responded on their next possession with a quarterback sneak by Thompson. Porras hit the PAT and UCHS had a chance with just under 8 minutes to play.

The Blue Devil defense forced the Longhorns to punt and UCHS got the ball back with 5-and-a-half minutes to go on their own 25-yard line. On several plays during the drive UCHS receivers could not come down with the ball.

“We had a couple drops at some inopportune times,” Rice said.

Facing fourth-and-5 with just over 2 minutes to play, the Blue Devils went for it, but came up just short. Johnson County regained possession and ran out the clock to win, 28-14.

“They made the plays in those crucial moments that we didn’t,” Rice said. Third-and-7 is a crucial moment in a game like that, whether it’s on offense or defense. We had some terrible dropped balls, too. Which is frustrating, because we haven’t had a lot of those all year.”

Despite the loss, Rice said he was encouraged by how hard his team played.

“I thought Matthew Hatcher and Shane Armstrong played their tails off defensively,” he said. “Matthew got his leg bruised up pretty good in the first half and played the entire second half despite it. He showed a whole lot of toughness Friday night. I thought our offensive line did a good job of picking up all the pressure they were bringing as well.”

Rice also thinks the grit his team displayed is evidence of how the program has grown this season.

“I hope it’s a sign that we are headed in the right direction as a program,” Rice said. “I have to say, that all year these guys have never once quit fighting. I really do like where the culture of our team is right now – these guys love one another and that’s something we spend a lot of time talking about. We tell them that football won’t last forever, but these relationships they are building with each other will.”

The Blue Devils had 177 yards of offense on Friday – 123 in the air and 54 on the ground.

Thompson completed 14-25 passes for 123 yards and rushed for 1 touchdown. Strother had 6 catches for 55 yards and 7 carries for 18 yards and 1 touchdown. Lewis had 8 carries for 33 yards. Nicholson had 3 catches for 27 yards. Higgins had 1 catch for 13 yards.

Johnson County had 263 yards of offense – 182 passing and 81 rushing.

Michael Smith and Nicholson each had 15 tackles in the loss. Hatcher had 12, Noah White and had 11, Bradley Edwards had 11, Armstrong had 9, Lewis had 9, Higgins had 6, Strother had 6 and Drew Williams had 5.

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The loss to Johnson County put the Blue Devils in third place in the region and set up a first round playoff matchup with Austin-East on Friday, Nov. 3, in Knoxville.

“They are an extremely talented football team,” Rice said of the Roadrunners. “They went 8-2 in one of the best regions in the state. We are going to have to play fast and take care of the football. We have to control the line of scrimmage and keep the chains moving.”

Kickoff for the Nov. 3 game is set for 7 p.m.