Ooltewah head coach Mac Bryan knows that high school football games can turn on a dime.
“All levels of football can change quick, but high school football, it’s every time you drop back,” Bryan said after the Owls’ 28-26 win over rival East Hamilton. “In the NFL you don’t see it as much, but you drop down to college and you see it more. In high school, you never know what’s going to happen.”
That was certainly the case for Friday’s District 5-AAA showdown. Not a single coach, player or spectator out of the roughly 7,000 people crammed inside Ooltewah’s James L. Monroe Stadium knew what was coming in the game’s closing minutes.
The Owls (4-1, 2-0), who’d claimed their first lead on sophomore linebacker Jeremiah Jackson’s 20-yard interception return for a touchdown in the closing minutes of the second quarter, had been in the driver’s seat for most of the final two quarters, and senior running back Desmond Pittman had his foot on the gas.
“At halftime we felt like the run was going to be a big part of the game,” said Pittman, who finished with 131 yards on 15 first-half carries. “My coaches told me ‘Des’, you’re going to have to keep it up, keep running.”
“Our consistency at times offensively wasn’t where we want it to be, but then again, the game lended itself to handing the ball off to number three,” Bryan added. “We were able to block up front and Desmond had a heck of a night.”
But even with Pittman’s dominance on the ground — he finished with 264 yards and three touchdowns — in addition to several key contributions from the Owls’ defense and special teams units, East Hamilton never wavered.
The Hurricanes (4-1, 1-1), which outgained Ooltewah 411-395, managed just three points on two first-half red-zone opportunities. They’d been sacked five times, and faced a 28-19 deficit following Owls junior Edward Hayes’ 49-yard punt return for a touchdown with 9:13 remaining.
Still, the ‘Canes managed to trim their deficit to 28-26 on junior Matt Milita’s third touchdown run of the evening. And after picking up one first down on its ensuing possession, Ooltewah was forced to punt.
That’s when Bryan’s theory really came into play.
Owls junior Laslo Toser’s punt wants blocked by East Hamilton junior Charles Sanders, and the Hurricanes took over possession at the opposing 33-yard line with 1:39 left and no timeouts.
“I was really worried,” Pittman said. “I actually doubted my defense, but they picked it up. It was crunch time.”
Quarterback Hunter Moore fired a 13-yard completion to senior Tyler Lowery, setting the Hurricanes up with a new set of downs at the 17-yard line. A field goal would have won it, but East Hamilton opted for the home run, lobbing the ball up to the always dangerous Tre Herndon in the end zone.
And while the pass slipped through the grasps of its intended receiver, the seemingly innocent incompletion turned out to be the play of the game. Herndon was flagged for offensive pass interference on the play, putting the ‘Canes in a third-and-27 situation.
“You don’t get any bigger than that,” Gatewood said of the call. “I didn’t see it, but hey, if we’re being aggressive and going after it, I don’t have a problem.”
Moore, who threw for 322 yards in the losing effort, was picked off by Ooltewah’s Adrian Hall on the ensuing play, and the Owls ran out the remaining clock with a kneel-down.
“A crowd like this, this kind of atmosphere,” Bryan said of the capacity crowd, “they deserved a game like this and it was very exciting ... Good teams; a good game, this is what it’s all about.
The Owls’ defense recorded five sacks and two interceptions in the winning effort, while senior receiver Mike Williams hauled in five receptions for 88 yards. East Hamilton senior Tony Francois finished with a team-high 107 yards on nine receptions, while Lowery hauled in five catches for 93 yards. Milita carried 15 times for 87 yards.
“I think we hung in there and made some plays,” East Hamilton coach Ted Gatewood said of his previously unbeaten Hurricanes squad. “But for [Ooltewah], they hung in there early on. We had the ball on the 1-yard line twice and couldn’t put it in. You can’t do that.
“There’s a lot of football to be played,” Gatewood added. “We’ve got to come back and get ready, get things squared away and we’ve got to get better at the little things we made mistakes on.”
Michael Murphy covers UTC athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @MichaelNooga.
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