Longhorns hang on to beat Blue Devils

Photo by Rick Harris
Nathan Paisley (11) returns a punt for the Longhorns.

By Michelle Pope
ERWIN--Johnson County redeemed itself Friday night in the game that everyone expected to be a close match. With the Longhorns and Blue Devils going into the kickoff carrying 2-1 records, the outcome was one that was highly anticipated.
Johnson County had a slow start, moving the ball only three yards on the first possession, but made up for it later, winning the game 19-13 at Gentry Stadium.
"It's always hard to win here," said Johnson County head coach Mike Atwood. "I think this is the first time I've ever won here. The boys just played hard, and kept fighting the whole way, and we came out with a win."
Unicoi made quick use of its first possession, rushing for more than 40 yards in two downs. Unicoi County quarterback Hunter Sparks made a six-yard run into the end zone to put the first six points up for the Blue Devils. Emanuel Mendoza kicked the PAT.
"We could have folded our camp right there at the first of the game when they drove down and scored on us," Atwood said.
Johnson County fumbled the ball on the next play, with Justin Wainwright making the recovery for Unicoi County. Coincidentally, a Unicoi fumble followed, and Daniel Cranford recovered the ball for the Longhorns, making a play that would soon lead to a touchdown.
"When the team gets down early in the first quarter, I think everybody's like 'oh no', but I think the (offensive line) did a really good job, and I think they helped us step up and realize that we can play really great against this team," said Cranford.
With the help of a 23-yard rush from Cranford, and an eight-yard rush from Nathan Paisley, the Longhorns moved the ball dangerously close to the end zone. Longhorn quarterback Jeffrey Brinker made a four-yard pass to Paisley, resulting in a touchdown. An extra point kick from Ian Prudhomme tied the game at 7.
On the Blue Devils' next possession, they fumbled the ball again, and Travis Brown made another recovery for Johnson County. In the second quarter, with the clocking ticking down, the Longhorns decided to make a go on their fourth down, and made it.
Three sets of downs later, after a 12-yard Brinker to Jason Poteet pass and two carries by Cranford for 27 yards, Johnson County was in scoring position again. Cranford forced his way the last yard into the end zone, bringing Johnson County's score up to 13. Prudhomme's extra point kick would have gone, but was blocked by Unicoi's Daniel Tipton.
Cranford, a player that Johnson County usually uses as a defensive powerhouse, played both sides of the ball against Unicoi County.
"We made some adjustments with Daniel Cranford," said Longhorn defensive coach Austin Atwood. "We put him back in middle linebacker a play or two, and we put him at the weak end a time or two, and I think it sort of caught them off guard."
"I wasn't playing very much offense those first few games," Cranford said. "Coach wanted to try me out in the backfield a little bit and I got to run the ball some. I had really great blocking with the (offensive line), and they blew their guys out, and I just tried really hard to run, and we got some yards off of it. I think that helped us out a lot, and gave us a lot of confidence, especially at the beginning of the game."
The few minutes before halftime were definitely ones filled with suspense and a string of surprises. The Blue Devils' offense struck hard. They moved the ball quickly, gaining down after down, but they were set back by several penalties -- totaling 35 yards -- and an interception by Jeremy Gerace.
Unicoi quarterback Hunter Sparks made a 23-yard pass to wide receiver Stephen Thomas, making up for lost yards, but after several incomplete passes, they went for it on fourth down. Adam Johnson made a sack, squashing the possibility of moving the ball any further downfield.
"I was worried a lot," Coach Mike Atwood said about Unicoi County repetitively making downs right before halftime. "If we could have gotten a couple first downs, it would have never come to that."
However, Johnson County's prized defense pulled through, and kept the Devils from making that crucial score that would have tied the game at halftime.
"We had talked about it earlier in the week - we felt like we were going to probably have to come up with a couple good (defensive) stands," said Austin Atwood. "Another thing we talked about was we hadn't had a pick all year. I'll tell you, our kids have a lot of guts."
After the halftime kickoff, Unicoi once again fumbled the ball, and Adam Johnson came to the rescue with a recovery. Jonah Dunn carried the ball eight yards for the Longhorns, and an amazing 25-yard pass from Brinker to Jason Poteet, who was waiting in the end zone, gave Johnson County its third touchdown.
Unicoi came back with renewed determination, moving the ball well. Sparks made two carries for 20 yards and a 12-yard pass to Cory Schwenke. Thomas Britt followed up with two carries for 24 yards.
"At halftime, we told them that we all need to settle down. We needed to all grasp our focus, and get our focus back," said Unicoi County head coach Larry Howell. "We had to head back out in the second half and we got the kickoff going, and got the ball down."
After a quarterback five-yard keeper and another 14-yard rush by Thomas Britt, the Blue Devils were again in scoring position. Sparks rushed the last four yards, and scored Unicoi County's second touchdown. They went for two points, but couldn't push through Johnson County's tough defense.
In the last quarter, Johnson County had possession of the ball with less than two minutes left in the game and a score of 19-13. On the fourth down, with four yards to go, the snap went awry and Longhorn kicker Ian Prudhomme was forced to run with the ball.
The Unicoi defense tackled him 12 yards behind the line of scrimmage, and suddenly, with seconds left in the game, the realization that Unicoi could tie the game became apparent.
A sack from Johnson County's defense took the steam out of Sparks, and then he made a long pass, but Shane Humphrey made a heroic diving interception, turning the game back over to Longhorn control.
"That was a big play," said Mike Atwood. "We've got to have some people make some big plays if we're going to win a tough game."
Humphrey knew that if the Longhorns wanted to insure their victory, they had to turn the ball over.
"I just saw the ball and I knew if I got that, we would win," he said. "I knew it was in our hands if I got it. I think we played hard. If we hadn't played hard, we couldn't have won, so we played really hard."
Coach Howell knew that his team played well and put up a good fight against Johnson County.
"If you take away the penalties and the fumbles, we would have had a good game going," he said. "The one touchdown drive we had, we played well on that drive. The offensive line stayed with their blocks, the running backs were running hard, the quarterback and backs were making good decisions, and they were all working at that drive After that, it just seemed like a fumble here, a penalty here, a missed block here, and a sack right there at the end."
Unicoi County had 32 carries for 153 yards, and Sparks completed six of 15 passes for 61 yards. The Devils lost four fumbles.
Cory Schwenke led in rushing with 10 carries for 61 yards, followed by Thomas Britt with eight for 43, and Hunter Sparks with four for 40 yards. Schwenke led with nine tackles.
Johnson County had 44 rushes for 153 yards, and Brinker completed five of his 10 passes for 66 yards. Jonah Dunn led the rushing with 17 carries for 66 yards, followed by Cranford's five for 53.
Jason Poteet caught three passes for 50 yards.
Cranford led the Longhorn tackles with 12, adding two sacks. He was followed by Sam Reece with nine, and Adam Johnson with eight and two sacks.
Coach Atwood was very pleased with the night's events.
"We stepped up when we had to, and our players we were expecting to make big plays did. I'm proud of the boys and how hard they worked, and how well they hung in there."