Thirty-five days since its most recent football game, seven weeks this side of the last time it looked even remotely threatened, Scott County exhibited the opposite of rust Friday night.
The Cardinals’ offense was surgical and its run defense smothering in a 63-12 trouncing of Grant County to kick off the KHSAA playoffs at Birds’ Nest Stadium.
“These past weeks we haven't been able to play, I think it helped out the team a lot,” junior halfback and defensive back Jeremy Hamilton said. “We could just keep working hard and just come out here and play our best, so that gave us a good boost.”
Hamilton was a razor-sharp model of efficiency. He carried six times and scored on four of them, amassing 110 yards, all in the first half to dispel any notion of drama.
The first of Jaxon Saylor’s two touchdown runs sent the game to running time with 4:04 remaining in the second quarter.
Life gets tougher in a hurry: Scott County (7-0) hosts its most heated rival of recent vintage, Frederick Douglass (5-1), next Friday night. Whichever team wins should have a strong chance to run the table, if healthy, and get to the Class 5A state final at Kroger Field the weekend before Christmas.
“The toughest thing, and we're all guilty of it, you need to enjoy what you accomplished tonight,” SC coach Jim McKee said. “That's 13 years in a row we've won the first round of the playoffs. That's something to really be proud of, the longevity and the loyalty of the people that have helped us do it.”
Douglass dominated the other side of the bracket, ending Great Crossing’s season, 62-21, also on Friday night.
SC stymied 5A’s leading rusher, Logan Sutherland, to the tune of 15 yards on 24 carries. He rolled up 179 of his 1,264 on the season against the Cardinals on Oct. 9, albeit in a game his Braves (3-4) lost by a similar 62-14 final.
Kevin Herbert led the Cards’ run-stuffing, pocket-collapsing resistance with a pair of sacks among his six tackles, earning Bluegrass Orthopaedics defensive player of the game honors.
He said the goal was to hold Sutherland under 50 yards.
“We've been off for a long time. We've been going hard ever since we got back from quarantine. We knew what we needed to come and do,” Herbert said. “It could have been anybody and we would have come out and played hard.”
McKee recalled that the 6-foot-4, 270-pound Herbert almost walked away from football his sophomore year.
“We did our conditioning drill, and he ran a half of the first lap and stopped and tried to quit,” the coach said. “I had to call his mother try to get her to get him going, get him back. Now he's doing good, man, and we're proud of him.”
Elijah Adams had 10 total stops and Cade Tackett nine for Scott County, which chalked up a tackle for loss on 11 of Grant County’s 29 rushing attempts. Jonathan Berry, anchor of the Cards' offensive line, made multiple stops behind the line of scrimmage in double duty.
It was a much different story when the team dressed in black lugged the leather.
Hamilton shredded the Grant County secondary for a natural hat trick on SC’s first three series. His scoring runs of five, 19 and 41 yards made him the easy choice for Burger King offensive player of the game out of the gate.
Zane Patton's 29-yard strike to Paul Garner on a hitch-and-go set up Hamilton's second score.
“I had good blocking. Running backs were running hard tonight,” Hamilton said. “I just felt like at the beginning of the season, I was a little sloppy and a little slow, but I've been pushing myself in practice.”
Held without a first down on its first two series, Grant County capped an impressive drive with a 28-yard scoring connection from Conner Knipp to Carson Bick in the closing seconds of the quarter. Cody King sacked Knipp on the two-point conversion attempt.
Grant County’s ensuing onside kick try actually went backward, and Scott County quickly capitalized with Montago Jones’ 35-yard TD ramble on the opening play of the second period. It was Jones’ first action since he suffered an ankle injury in a Week 4 win over Ryle.
Hamilton wasn’t done. The junior put the finishing touches on his incredible half with a 25-yard scamper. All of Hamilton’s TDs had a similar look – sweeping, typically to the right, and patiently following his blockers off tackle before turning on the jets.
Combined with his output in the regular-season matchup, it gave Hamilton seven scores in a stretch of five and a half quarters against the Braves.
A week after that previous victory, SC routed Montgomery County, 69-6, before the lull for myriad reasons related to coronavirus. Hamilton and the Cards grew weary of hitting one another and were eager to take out that frustration on someone else.
“We've just been pushing each other in practice, always challenging each other, just making sure we're doing good and trying to stay safe. I think practicing all this time helped us condition a lot,” Hamilton said. “We've been going at each other a lot, but I think that just makes our bonds a little stronger.”
The continuous clock even ran between extra points and kickoffs, making for a swift second half.
That included an exchange of touchdowns in the third quarter. SC continued the onslaught with a 2-yard run by Campton Martin, his team-leading 17th all-purpose TD of the season.
Knipp (10-for-18, 146 yards) and Bick (six catches, 72 yards) hooked up for their second score of the night from 23 yards out on the final play of the third quarter.
Saylor, who’s also been sidelined since the Ryle contest, added a 1-yard run with 10:14 to go. Taylor Luttrull’s 48-yard kick return and a 21-yard run by Jones set the table.
Haaden Jones joined the fun at the 5:01 mark with 28-yard scoot to paydirt on his only carry of the night.
McKee doubled down on Hamilton's positive spin regarding the month-long hiatus.
“I read and I see people say, 'Aw, this year.' I don't see why this year's any different than any other. I love it. If all you gotta do is check somebody's temperature and wear a mask to get to practice and play, who cares?” the coach said. “We enjoyed the 35 days as much as any as I've ever enjoyed. The biggest thing it allowed us to do was go back and get some things done that we didn't get done in the summer. We really got better in those 35 days. We got a lot better.”
After needing nine plays to score on its opening drive, SC’s touchdowns marches all took four snaps or fewer.
In addition to Garner, Kam Lay also had a long catch from Patton to set up an SC score.
Jacob Bange drilled all nine extra points. He is 44-for-45 on the year.
Two Scott County games were canceled at the end of the regular season, including a scheduled meeting with Douglass for the second time. A two-week quarantine due to COVID-19 also made it impossible for the Cards to pick up a game during their schedule bye week.
In a season where the touchdowns and tackles have been more spread out than ever, it merely strengthened Scott County's toughest competition to date – itself.
“Hard work and hard practices,” Herbert said. “If you don't come out here and play hard, someone behind you is waiting to do it. We've got to keep grinding.”
To top it all off, the KHSAA pushed back the start of the playoffs by a week. None of it stopped SC’s streak of winning its first-round playoff game. The last loss: 60-56 to Shelby County in the 2007 Class 6A postseason.
Scott County and Frederick Douglass have met six times since the Lexington school opened in 2017. Each team has won three. SC’s most memorable victory was a 28-27 triumph in the ’18 district title game.
“I'm pumped for it," Hamilton said. “I think we're ready for it. We've just got to play our hearts out and do as well as we can.”