By Keeli Parkey
A stingy performance by the Johnson County (9-1, 5-0) defense kept the Unicoi County High School football team (8-2, 4-1) from a region championship.
Playing in a matchup of league unbeaten teams on senior night at Gentry Stadium in Erwin on Friday, Oct. 26, the Longhorns held the high-scoring Blue Devils to their lowest point total of the season en route to a 35-12 victory. The win gave Johnson County the region crown and dropped UCHS to second place.
“We are all disappointed in the outcome,” Blue Devil head coach Drew Rice said. “Johnson County is a very good football team. I did think our guys fought and battled.”
The Longhorns got on the scoreboard first on Friday, scoring with around 4 minutes to play in the first quarter on an 18-yard run by Nathan Lane. Johnson County then took a 14-0 lead in the opening minute of the second quarter, this time on a 39-yard run by Lane.
“It took us a while to get going offensively,” Rice said. “Nathan Lane is a very good football player. We allowed him to get loose a few times and he made us pay.”
The Blue Devils fought their way back into the game in the second quarter. Quarterback Brock Thompson hit Brett Strother on a 54-yard pass to put UCHS in scoring position. Three handoffs to Kody Lewis later and he was in the end zone. Johnson County led 14-6 with 8 minutes to play in the half.
UCHS then forced Johnson County to punt and put together another scoring drive that culminated in another score by Lewis. The Blue Devils went into halftime trailing only 14-12.
“Once we settled in, I thought we played much better in the second quarter,” Rice said. “Going in at halftime, I felt really good about where we were.”
In the third, the teams traded possessions for most of the quarter. With around 7 minutes to play, the Blue Devils found themselves with the ball deep in their own territory. On third-and-14, Lane intercepted Thompson’s pass and ran it back into the end zone for a 21-12 Longhorn lead.
“It certainly deflated us,” Rice said of the score. “A play like that, in a game like that, can be devastating. Sometimes it comes down to who makes the first big mistake and that was us. That play is on me though, it wasn’t a good play call.”
The Blue Devil offense was held in check the rest of the way as Johnson County’s pressure defense kept them out of the end zone. The Longhorns added two more scores in the fourth quarter, both by Lane, for the final score of 35-12.
“I will just give credit where it’s due – they just have a tremendous defense,” Rice said. “Probably the best defense we have seen in the last three years in the regular season. They are very aggressive and put a lot of pressure on offenses.”
That defense held UCHS to just 3-11 on third down attempts, while the Longhorns converted 6-10.
“We certainly struggled to move the ball, except for in the second quarter,” Rice said. “Not being able to get stops on third down defensively is usually not a recipe for success.”
UCHS had only 190 total yards of offense, which is the lowest of the season. Of that 102 yards came in the air, while 88 came on the ground. Johnson County had 308 total yards – 45 passing and 263 rushing.
Thompson threw for 102 yards. Lewis had 23 carries for 79 yards and 2 touchdowns. Strother had 3 catches for 89 yards.
Lewis, Noah White, Danny Lowery and Tanner VanHoy had 3 tackles each for the UCHS defense. Lowery also had a sack.
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The second place finish in Region 1-3A by the Blue Devils set up a first round playoff contest with Kingston (4-6, 3-3), the third seed from Region 2-3A. The game will be played in Erwin on Friday, Nov. 2, at 7 p.m.
“They are a very good football team,” Rice said of Kingston. “You don’t get in the playoffs in that region and not be one. We will have our hands full. They are going to try and run the football the majority of the time and we are going to have to stop it. This is the first home playoff game in 27 years, so it’s something we are a very proud of. We hope to have a good showing Friday night.”
Putting the Johnson County loss behind them will be key for the Blue Devils as they face Kingston.
“We have talked a lot about this being a new season,” Rice said. “We are very fortunate to still be playing. Over half the teams in the state are already finished. We put together a good enough year to earn a home playoff, which is a huge deal for our program. We have to refocus and get back to work.”
Johnson County will host Gatlinburg-Pittman (6-4, 3-3) on Friday.