By Keeli Parkey
A victory that would have qualified them for the playoffs slipped out of the Blue Devils hands last week.
Facing Region 1-AAA opponent Northview Academy (6-3, 5-1), the Unicoi County High School football team (4-5, 3-3) suffered a stunning 29-23 loss thanks to a last-minute touchdown thrown by Cougar quarterback Justin Howard to Haiden McGee.
“I thought it was as hard fought of a high school game as you will probably see,” Blue Devil head coach Drew Rice said about Friday’s loss. “It was very disappointing to let that one get away.
“We lost Shaddon Peavyhouse and Michael Smith both in the first quarter and had to play the rest of the game without two very important guys on our football team. I think some very untimely penalties killed us throughout the game. We missed some opportunities in the second quarter that we feel like really could have changed the outcome of the game. With all of that being said, I couldn’t be more proud of our guys. They laid it all on the line to win that game. We had guys playing through injuries left and right. These kids have bought into what we are trying to accomplish.”
The Blue Devils will have one final chance to qualify for the playoffs. They must defeat Johnson County when the Longhorns (4-5, 3-3) come to Erwin on Friday, Oct. 29. Kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m.
“You don’t ever want to over-hype a game, but Friday night we are playing for our football lives,” Rice said. “If we win, we make the playoffs; if we lose, our season is over. I think these seniors are determined to make their last game at Gentry Stadium special. We are going to do everything possible this week to make their last home game a success, they deserve to go out with a win. They are a very special group of young men.”
The Longhorns come into Gentry Stadium after losing to Pigeon Forge, 21-7, on Oct. 21.
“Johnson County has a very good football team,” Rice said. “Their quarterback is a very talented kid and he can make a lot of things happen with his arm and his feet. Coach (Don) Kerley and his staff do a great job. We expect them to bring a great effort, because we are both playing for fourth place in our league and that last playoff spot.
“I hope that we can get a good turnout at the game this Friday for senior night. The weather looks like it will be better than it was last week and it should be a great game. These seniors deserve to go out in front of a big Unicoi County crowd against a long time rival in Johnson County.”
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After forcing Northview to punt on the first drive of the game, the Blue Devils put together a scoring drive that took up most of the time remaining in the first quarter. The Blue Devils took over on their own 4-yard line and marched down the field. The drive ended when, facing fourth-and-16, quarterback Kendrick Williams connected with Dylan Lewis on a 23-yard touchdown pass. The extra point failed and UCHS led 6-0 with 22 seconds to play in the first quarter.
The Cougars began their drive at their own 38-yard line. Eleven plays later, they were in the end zone and took a 7-6 lead with just under nine minutes to play in the half.
Blue Devil Brett Strother didn’t let the Cougars celebrate for long. The sophomore took the ensuing kickoff and scampered 80 yards for the team’s first kickoff return for a score of the season. UCHS went for and completed a 2-point conversion to take a 14-7 lead.
“Brett’s return was a huge play,” Rice said. “Anytime he has the ball in his hands, there is a chance he is going to score. He’s had a great sophomore year, and we are very excited about having him for the next two years. He is a special player.”
The Blue Devil defense, led by Dylon Burgess’ sack, rode the momentum from Strother’s score to force the Cougars into a fourth-and-13 situation. Northview attempted a fake punt, but the Blue Devils stopped it to take possession 26 yards away from the end zone. As would be the case several more times throughout the game, UCHS failed to find the end zone from scoring position. This drive looked promising, with Nick Fender carrying the ball for 13 yards and a first down. A holding penalty and a fumble by UCHS brought the drive to an end.
“I have to give a lot of credit to Northview’s defense, specifically their defensive line,” Rice said. “There is a reason they are 6-3 and will finish 2nd in our league. They are a very good football team.”
The Blue Devil defense forced another Northview punt and took over on their own 30-yard-line. Williams then hit Lewis for a 38-yard gain. A roughing the passer call against the Cougars gave UCHS the first down and the ball at the 17-yard line. Again, the Blue Devils failed to score, turning the ball over on downs with 1:08 to play in the half.
The Blue Devil defense forced the Cougars into a fourth-and-two. Looking to punt, the snap was snapped over the kicker’s head, giving UCHS the ball on the 3-yard line with seconds to play in the half.
Strother then carried the ball from the quarterback position for no gain. The Blue Devils were unable to line up for another try at the end zone before the officials ruled that the half had come to an end. UCHS took a 14-7 lead into the break.
“We burned our last timeout to force them to punt it,” Rice said. “When we didn’t get in on first down, we tried to get lined up and spike the ball to stop the clock. The side judge on our side waved the clock operator to stop the clock, but the head official came in and said we didn’t get it spiked in time. Plays like that are tough, it definitely would have been nice to get six or seven more points going into the half right there.”
The Blue Devils first drive of the second half started out promising, but was stopped by an interception by Northview’s Zeb Petty. Taking over on their own 28-yard line, the Cougars needed 10 plays to tie the game.
The Cougar defense held UCHS on the next drive. Taking possession near the end of the third quarter, Northview lost the ball on a fumble and the Blue Devils took over on the Cougars’ 34-yard line. On third-and-seven, Williams hit Lewis for a 16-yard gain and a first down on the final play of the third quarter.
Strother then carried the ball for four yards, but a penalty against UCHS backed the Blue Devils up to a first-and-26. Williams then hit Lewis for another big gain – this one for 30 yards. Strother then carried the ball for five yards, which set up Fender’s 1-yard touchdown run. The point-after attempt failed and UCHS took a 20-14 lead with 10:34 to play in the game.
The Cougars needed only a minute to answer and reclaim the lead. Thanks in part to a facemask penalty against the Blue Devils, Northview found the end zone again, this time on a 10-yard run by Joe Grindstaff. The extra point was good and the Cougars led 21-20 with 9:25 to play.
Williams and Michael Howell then led UCHS back down the field. On this drive, Williams hit Howell three times for a total of 45 yards to get the Blue Devils down to Northview’s 27-yard line. Strother then carried for 12 yards and a first down. Burgess then gained five yards on the ground, Strother lost two and Fender gained one to bring up fourth-and-six from the nine-yard line with 4:27 to play. Rice then called timeout.
Out of the timeout came Christian Leon to attempt the field goal. The senior found the uprights to give the Blue Devils a 23-21 lead. It was Leon’s first successful field goal attempt in four tries this season.
“Being down one, we knew the field goal would give us the lead,” Rice said. “We had the ball in the middle of the field and well within Christian’s range. He makes those all the time in practice, and both Christian and Coach (Brandon) Adams felt confident about it, so I sent out the field goal team. We had a great snap, great hold and Christian put it through for us. I am very proud of him, that was a big time kick.”
Once again, the UCHS defense rose to the challenge, forcing Northview to punt. The Blue Devils started their ensuing drive at their own 22-yard line with 2:57 to play. They didn’t keep the ball long and were forced to punt with 1:25 to play.
The Cougar’s game-winning drive started on their own 41-yard line. Howard carried the ball twice to bring Northview into UCHS territory to the 41-yard line. On second-and-three, Howard carried the ball again and a facemask penalty was called on the Blue Devils. This gave Northview first down at the 25-yard line. It was on this play that Howard found McGee for the winning touchdown with 28 seconds to play. The Cougars completed the 2-point conversion to lead 29-23.
“Their quarterback made some plays when they had to have them, including a big time throw there on the last play,” Rice said. “We stopped them on third down at midfield, and then we get a 15-yard facemask penalty to put them in striking distance. Penalties killed us all night. We have to help ourselves out in those situations.”
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Williams was 22-32 on pass attempts for 264 yards and 1 touchdown Friday night. Lewis caught 8 passes for 164 yards. Howell caught 5 passes for 59 yards. Laban Peterson had 2 catches for 21 yards and Owen Nicholson had 1 catch for 15 yards.
Fender had 19 carries for 30 yards and a touchdown. Strother had 11 carries for 40 yards. Burgess had 2 carries for 9 yards.
Lewis also led the UCHS defense with 14 tackles and 4 assists. Shane Armstrong had 6 tackles, 7 assists and a fumble recovery. Burgess and Howell had 5 tackles and 4 assists each. Burgess and Jacob Smith each had a sack.