Chance Pierce rushed 19 times for 140 yards, including a 54-yard touchdown, and the Malik McGue-less Hilltoppers piled up 304 yards rushing en route to a 35-33 victory that wasn’t quite the nail-biter that the final score suggests.
Along with McGue (ankle), the starting quarterback, the Hilltoppers (2-0, 4-2) were without starting cornerback/receiver Mikey White (hand) and starting tight end/linebacker Isaac Story (ankle) coming into the game. And before the first quarter was over they were without starting linebacker/running back Gad Nagba (seven carries, 35 yards), who limped off with yet another Hilltoppers high ankle sprain after an eight-yard carry.
But Pierce and an opportunistic defense (six turnovers) helped the Hilltoppers build a 35-20 lead by the time Addison Adams scored the second of his two TDs with 39 seconds left in the third quarter, and it was just enough to limp to the finish victoriously.
Pierce said Science Hill coach Stacy Carter stressed the importance of bouncing back from non-conference losses to Siegel and Brentwood Academy.
“Coach Carter was telling us all week, ‘If we don’t win this game, we can’t win the conference,’” Pierce said. “And that pumped us up a lot. We had to get out of those two losses and come back with a win. …
“It was a battle. I knew those guys (Tennessee High) were gonna come out and play.”
Tennessee High quarterback Peyton Henley threw two of his three TD passes in the final 8:32. The last one was a 6-yarder to Christian Gibson in the back left corner of the end zone with 46.3 seconds left. The PAT kick was good, but Science Hill recovered the ensuing onsides kick and ran out the clock with two kneel-downs.
An irate Carter said he thought the officiating and the clock operating had a hand in Tennessee High (1-1, 3-3) getting the ball back for its final drive. Science Hill, leading 35-26, was called for a strange delay of game that stopped the clock after quarterback Tucker McPherson’s 10-yard run had given the ‘Toppers a first down at the Tennessee High 28 with 3:44 remaining. Two plays later, a Pierce 38-yard TD run was called back for holding (granted, multiple flags were thrown), and Science Hill was called for roughing the passer on the Vikings’ ensuing scoring drive.
Carter could barely stop criticizing the officials to commend his players.
“I thought our kids persevered, with that adversity and that adversity coming from trying to run the clock out there and we kept getting those things – the delay of game,” Carter said. “I mean the clock clicked and it wasn’t a delay of game. It wasn’t right. And like I said, I don’t care, it was awful. But they did a good job of trying to keep it close, I guess. …
“I’m proud of my kids to be able to overcome that. That’s amazing. I don’t know how you can do that with all those injuries and all that stuff happening – and still overcome that.”
Henley (295 yards passing) opened the scoring with a 70-yard TD pass to Adam Mitchell (3 receptions, 138 yards) with 2:00 left in the first quarter. The Vikings missed the first of three PAT kicks, although they did complete a two-point conversion pass that made the score 14-14 with 7:01 left in the first half.
McPherson scored the Hilltoppers’ first TD on a 5-yard run with 11:07 remaining in the second quarter. McPherson, a senior who hadn’t played football the past two seasons, finished with 16 carries for 54 yards, and sophomore quarterback Justin Bedard ran six times for 43 yards.
“I thought Tucker gutted it out,” Carter said. “I mean, you’re taking a guy that hadn’t been in since his freshman year, and just to go out there and run it under that pressure. You know, I didn’t think Justin (Bedard) did bad either when he was in. He ran the ball, had some big runs.”
Adams scored from two yards out 51 seconds after McPherson’s TD. Brandon Westmoreland’s fumble recovery at the Tennessee High 41 helped set up the score. Westmoreland, a junior cornerback, recovered another fumble in the second quarter and returned it 43 yards for a TD that gave the ‘Toppers a 21-14 halftime lead.
“He’s a great kid, and it was good for that good fortune to happen to him,” Carter said. “He was at the right place at the right time and made some great plays.”
Westmoreland made a cut-back to avoid Henley on the touchdown return.
“I saw the quarterback taking a good angle,” Westmoreland said. “So I was like, ‘It’s either me maybe getting tackled or I’m taking it to the end zone, so I’m just gonna go for the juke.’”
The Vikings coughed up three fumbles (two on handoff exchanges) and threw three interceptions. Science Hill’s Brett Marcus, who stepped in for the injured Story, jumped a wide receiver-screen route for an interception in the red zone and returned it 20 yards to stop the Vikings’ first drive of the game.
Cornerback Jordan Holly, filling in for White, returned an interception 29 yards to the Tennessee High 15 to set up Adams’ second touchdown late in the third quarter. And on the Vikings’ next drive, linebacker Costa Kalogeros, filling in for Nagba, intercepted a batted ball to give Science Hill possession at the Tennessee High 45.
“After that (Nagba injury) I was like, ‘Shew, what else can happen,’” Westmoreland said. “It kind of seemed like everything was against us. … I knew a lot of people had to step up with all the players we have injured.”
Science Hill’s Aaron Adams also had a fumble recovery and multiple tackles for losses. He dropped Kauhlil King for a two-yard loss at the Science Hill 24 on a fourth-and-two carry with 8:11 left in the third quarter and the ‘Toppers leading 21-14.
“He had a big sack and a fumble recovery,” Carter said. “And he’s a great kid. … Those seniors are such good people, good teammates – Aaron Adams, Chad Backus and all those guys, and I’m just proud of them.”
King rushed 23 times for 105 yards and a touchdown and caught a 9-yard TD pass with 8:32 left. The PAT kick missed after hitting the left upright, leaving the score at 35-26.
Carter was concerned about Tennessee High even when his Hilltoppers were healthy.
“This is a major hurdle, especially with all that adversity,” Carter said. “I mean, your two captains (McGue, Nagba) are gone, and your … best outside linebacker’s gone. Story’s a player. … So I mean, it’s not just one or two people. … Hat’s off to the kids to rise up and make the plays.”
Alex Rinella was 5-for-5 on PATs and Adam Moorleghen kickoffs produced five touchbacks. Offensive linemen Malcolm White and Ethan Morelock appeared to get a lot done for the ‘Toppers, and Elijah Mathes had a 50-yard kickoff return.
Zak Kitzmiller had a diving interception and returned a punt 82 yards for a TD for the Vikings, who nearly dug out of the 15-point hole in the last 8 ½ minutes.
“All that put together really just tells me that we’re a fighting team,” Kitzmiller said. “I’m not worried about this game, because the simple fact is they’re a good team and we played really hard.”
Science Hill hosts Sullivan Central on Friday. Tennessee High visits Dobyns-Bennett.