With a rope-a-dope that might have made the late, legendary Kentuckian Muhammad Ali tip his cap, Scott County’s defense fired haymakers under duress to ward off Great Crossing in a first-round playoff classic Friday night.
SC served up two fourth-quarter stops inside the 15-yard line, and an interception by Andrew Willhite sealed the deal, 21-19, at frosty Birds Nest Stadium.
Senior fullback Luke Colvin led the Cardinals (6-5) with 26 carries for 118 yards and two first-half touchdowns of 1 and 5 yards on his way to team MVP honors.
“The biggest one was the last one,” SC coach Jim McKee said. “My plan all along was to quit when (oldest son) Cade graduated. The schools split. It's a completely different atmosphere now than it was, not that it's a negative atmosphere. I'm so happy for the kids, not me. That's why I keep coaching. It's the kids. It's so I can watch Luke Colvin.”
Colvin churned up the middle for 23 yards, his longest gain of the night, after the Willhite pick, allowing SC – which did not score a point in the second half – to run out the clock.
“That last carry, all I thought was put my head down and run,” Colvin said. “I covered up that ball with two hands, and I kept trucking. That was our season. That was to get us to the next round. I ain't even worried about this no more. I'm ready to get back on the practice field and keep working. I'm fired up.”
Scott County has won its playoff opener in 14 consecutive seasons.
None have been tougher than this one. Since losing to Shelby County in 2007, 10 points was SC's closest first-round margin of victory, and that was the only gap closer than three touchdowns.
“The first thing I would say is that I'm not anti-Great Crossing,” McKee said. “I'm pro-kid, and their kids showed a ton of resilience tonight. But I'm all Scott County to the bone. That's who I am.”
In addition to Colvin’s productive dives, Andrew Hickey hit Jeremy Hamilton with a 55-yard touchdown pass, propelling Scott County to a 21-7 halftime lead.
The Cards never again sniffed the goal line against the Warhawks, who erased an identical two-touchdown deficit to beat Collins a week ago in their regular-season finale.
“It was a great football game. The bottom line is I'm proud of our young men,” GC coach Ricky Bowling said. “We asked them all week, all season long, to play for four quarters and play with discipline.
"They did everything they could, and you know what? They left a legacy here at Great Crossing. I'm happy for them. There's a lot of great kids in that senior class, and I know they're going to be great men after they leave our program.”
GC (8-3) used two huge plays by its Tennessee-bound, all-purpose star, Kalib Perry, to get back into the game.
Perry’s 61-yard bomb out of the wildcat formation to a wide-open Zackarrey Kelley answered Colvin’s initial score and made it 14-7 with 5:48 remaining in the second quarter.
After taking the shotgun snap and rolling three steps to his right to fake the run and draw in the defense, Perry launched a pass deep down the middle.
“We had it just up our sleeve. I saw them bite on it and I said, 'All right, let me throw it.' I thought I overthrew him. I thought, oh my gosh, please,” Perry said. “Then I heard everybody cheering and saw him take off. It was unreal.”
Kelley, he of the ESPN Top 10 highlight grab earlier this fall, did his part with an in-stride, over-the-shoulder, fingertip snag.
After Colvin cashed in a second time and the Warhawks received the second-half kickoff, Gabe Nichols got GC within a score once again on a 1-yard quarterback sneak. Jaxon Saylor blocked the extra point attempt.
Perry later hauled in a 59-yard TD from Nichols, dragging would-be tackler Danny Armstrong the final 10 yards to the pylon.
“I just threw him off inside and beat him down (the sideline), and I caught it,” Perry said. “He jumped on my back, and I figured I just have to carry him to the end zone.”
A GC teammate was flagged for taunting at the end of the play, which backed up the potential game-tying two-point try all the way to the 18-yard line. Paul Garner picked off Nichols’ pass to preserve the lead.
Isaac Krebs sacked Nichols to stop GC’s first bid for the go-ahead score with 11:07 remaining. Long runs by Zach Morris and Isaiah Johnson and a personal foul against the Cards fueled that march.
“They scored two straight drives and kind of got our confidence down, but we got a stop right here, and that's all that really mattered,” Willhite said.
GC caught another potential game-changing break when SC punter Cristian Rodriguez put a knee to the turf after cradling a low snap and was called down at his own 12-yard line.
“I thought, son of a gun.” McKee said. “Dang, we let the Bryan Station game slip away from us, and dang, we let the Ballard game slip away from us in the fourth quarter, and dang, we missed a 24-yard field goal to win at Lexington Catholic. Now we just took a knee on a punt. But they deserve a lot of credit defensively. They really stuffed us up in the second half.”
The Warhawks eschewed what would have been a 23-yard field goal try on the ensuing possession, and Nichols’ fourth-down throw sailed over Kelley’s reach in the back of the end zone.
“There was definitely thought into it. I just did not feel comfortable with extra points. They had blocked 'em, and I made the decision to go for it,” Bowling said. “We were down here. I felt like we had momentum. I felt like we had good play calls. It just didn't work out for us.”
Krebs, Quinn Brown, Elijah Adams and Cam Keller all had a hand in at least one tackle for a loss or no gain on GC's final two red zone trips.
“When they started breathing down our neck, we realized if we wanted to practice and play next week, we needed to kick it into the next gear, so that's what we did,” Colvin said. “Our defense, there's no words for them. They're the reason we're in this situation right now.”
Sophomore Ellis Huguely gained good yardage on five consecutive carries, including a pair of first downs, to finally get the Cards out of that field position hole.
GC buckled down to force SC’s eighth punt of the game.
“Defense continued to hold right there and gave us several opportunities,” Bowling said. “Our kids played physical. They played hard. They made adjustments at halftime and came out and did that in the second half.”
Two minutes and two timeouts remained when the Warhawks reclaimed possession at their own 31, but pressure from Krebs forced an errant throw over the middle. Willhite was the only man on the scene.
“They rolled out. Paul went up, and Jeremy was by himself, so I just dropped back and it was right there,” Willhite said. “Krebs had a lot of pressure on (Nichols) every play pretty much, him and Elijah.”
An illegal block scrubbed Willhite's apparent touchdown return, but it still put away his team’s second tight win of the season over the cross-town upstarts.
“It hurts, but we feel like we've established our program with a great group of kids,” Bowling said. “Nothing to hang our heads about. It's been really awesome to watch the growth and maturity mentally, physically and emotionally. Those are three keys that we focus on as a coaching staff, and this senior class is a prime example of what Great Crossing is and what our football program is about.”
A 6-foot-2, 229-pound tank of a senior from the opposite sideline etched the exclamation point.
Primarily a defensive player most of his varsity career, Colvin had 329 career rushing yards on Oct. 22. In the past three games against Ballard, Lexington Catholic and Great Crossing, he has amassed 453.
“I love my line, and I love my quarterback,” Colvin said. “All I'm saying is if we keep going like we're going, just be ready.”
SC won 14-6 back on Oct. 1, earning the No. 2 seed in the district and the de facto “home” status for the rematch.
Krebs delivered 2 1/2 tackles for loss to strike a similar defensive tone this time around, while Adams made 10 total stops to lead the Cardinals’ defense.
“I haven't lost to them in my career, so I wasn't planning on it tonight,” Willhite said. “It was really just focusing in on what our individual jobs were, guard our man and let the linebackers make the tackles on the run.”
Brown recovered a botched handoff at the GC 12 to set up the first Colvin touchdown, SC’s second in a span of 1:55 after a first-quarter stalemate.
But the fun was just getting started.
“I love those boys, and I told every single of them that when I was shaking their hands,” Colvin said of Great Crossing. “No matter what school we're at, nothing's gonna ever change that. I promise you that. Those are my boys.”
Scott County will face Frederick Douglass in the second round for the fourth consecutive year. SC won in 2018, with Douglass returning the favor in 2019 and 2020.
The Broncos will host the game next Friday, Nov. 12 by virtue of their 35-0 regular-season win on Sept. 24.
“There's so much support in this community for football,” McKee said. “I don't know what the state record (for consecutive first-round playoff wins) is. I don't even care. All I can tell you is Luke Colvin and these seniors, they weren't even in kindergarten when we lost our last one.
"That's part of why this game means so much to them too, 'cause football means a lot in this town. You can tell. How much passion was there in that football game tonight for these fans and these players? A ton of it.”