ELIZABETHTON — It didn’t come down to who wanted it more. It came down to who had the football last.
In an intensely hard-fought game, featuring a staggering 962 yards of offense despite only six completed passes, Elizabethton outlasted Sullivan North 41-38 in an overtime thriller Friday night at Rider Field.
The TSSAA Class 3A state quarterfinal contest will go down as a classic.
“This game had nothing to do with coaching,” said Elizabethton head coach Shawn Witten. “It was all about the guys in the black shirts. They stepped up and made plays when they had to, and words can’t describe how proud I am of these kids.
“This is so sweet for us. These kids earned everything they got.”
Elizabethton (11-2) recorded its 11th straight win, and earned a home game against defending state champion Christian Academy of Knoxville in next week’s semifinals. CAK earned its spot with a 38-36 victory over Alcoa.
Sullivan North suffered the toughest of losses, making a dramatic fourth-quarter comeback and eventually taking the lead in overtime only to lose to the Cyclones for the second time this season — North’s only two losses of the year as it finished at 11-2.
The Raiders lost in the quarterfinals for the second straight season while the Cyclones reached the semifinals for the third time in the last four years.
After failing to settle the issue in regulation play and the game tied at 35-35, Elizabethton won the coin toss and elected to go on defense first. North took over at the 10-yard line and kept the ball in the hands of quarterback Cory Rowe. And why not? The senior had gained 245 yards rushing in regulation.
Rowe got five yards on first down, but the Cyclones held him to a two-yard gain on second down. Then on third down, a defense that was brutalized in the late stages of the fourth quarter came to life for a big play. The Cyclones gang-tackled Rowe for a three-yard loss.
North lined up to go for it on fourth down, but called timeout and mysteriously opted for a field goal in a game where Elizabethton struggled to come up with key defensive stops. Will Henshaw made the 24-yard boot, but the 38-35 lead looked precarious at best.
On the Cyclones’ first try from the 10-yard line, Ethan Thomas got the ball. And why not? The sophomore had run for 246 yards in regulation.
Thomas bullied his way to the 1-yard line.
“I just saw an open hole,” said Thomas. “(Fullback) Luke Blanton made a great block, and he had told me to bounce off of it if I saw it, and I did.”
On second-and-goal, quarterback Caleb Bailey took matters into his own hands.
“It was designed to go outside, but I saw the nose guard was off,” said Bailey. “I didn’t tell anybody, I just took it myself. It was a great job by the offensive line. The offensive line is why we won this game.”
Bailey’s score touched off a celebration, and the announcement that CAK was headed north sent an already frenzied Cyclones’ crowd into further levels of excitement.
Bailey said the Cyclones were very confident when they approached their overtime possession.
“Ten yards didn’t look like much for our offense because we’ve gained 4,000 yards rushing this year,” he said.
Elizabethton outrushed the Raiders, but only by seven yards (424-417). North had the total offense edge, 484-478.
It was about as closely matched as a game could be, but the Cyclones looked to have it neatly wrapped in the fourth quarter. After Markus Olds blocked a potential go-ahead field goal by North, the Cyclones went on a 10-play 80-yard drive, which featured nine runs by Thomas — including the 14-yard score — to make it 28-20.
After a North punt, Thomas raced 86 yards for a touchdown and a 35-20 lead with 3:59 remaining.
“I’ve never run that far that fast, but I was determined to get it,” said Thomas.
North wasn’t dead, however, and the excitement was just beginning. The Raiders went on a four-play, 64-yard drive that took only 57 seconds off the clock. It featured tough runs by Rowe and Kairi Thompson, who scored from 37 yards out.
“Cory Rowe is as good as there is,” said Witten. “He’s so tough to tackle.”
Everybody expected the onside kick, and North delivered a beauty — hitting it up the middle and coming up with the loose ball.
Seven plays later, the Raiders scored again with Thompson getting to the pylon from six yards out with 44.9 seconds left. North still needed a 2-point conversion, and Rowe delivered a walk-in score.
North squibbed the next kick, and it bounced off an Elizabethton defender. The Raiders recovered with 38 seconds left, and had a chance for the win. However, the Cyclones’ defense made two big plays, and North turned it over on downs.
“Both teams laid it on the line,” said Witten. “This was a total team effort.”
Rowe finished with 255 yards on 25 carries while Thompson added 105 yards on 15 carries. Rowe had two TDs, including an impressive 50-yard dash for the only score of the third quarter.
For Elizabethton, Thomas totaled 255 yards on 27 carries. Terrence Turner, who missed much of the second half with an injury, finished with 118 yards on nine carries.
Neither team scored in the first quarter, although Elizabethton had points come off the board when Christine Hardin’s 25-yard field goal was nullified by penalty. Logan Birchfield attempted a 38-yarder and missed wide left.
North struck first on a fourth-and-15 play when Rowe lofted a nice pass to Jon Kilgore for a 28-yard touchdown.
Elizabethton answered just 1:15 later with a five-play 58-yard drive as Bailey finished things off with a 17-yard scoring run.
After a North punt, Elizabethton went on a six-play drive, capped by Turner’s 20-yard scoring run to make it 14-7.
Thompson set North up at Elizabethton’s 37-yard line with a 43-yard kickoff return. Six plays later, Rowe danced into the end zone from 16 yards out. Rowe’s score came just one play after teammate Jacob Jasper was ejected for a personal foul.
Elizabethton had just 1:24 to work with, but moved to North’s 45-yard line with 33 seconds left. On third-and-one, Turner went right up the middle, broke a couple of tackles, sprinted the sideline and then cut back for the final 10 yards and a 21-13 Cyclones’ lead at the break.
Hardin, the Cyclones’ senior place-kicker, was 5 of 5 on extra points. In her last four games, she is 24 of 24 on PATs.