Northeast Tennessee football fans have been blessed this season with two of the best games ever played.
It’s hard to compare Science Hill’s titanic struggle with Dobyns-Bennett to Elizabethton’s epic battle with Sullivan North, but they will both be talked about for many years to come.
Enough has been written in this newspaper about D-B’s 37-34 win over Science Hill in a Week 10 battle of undefeated teams, witnessed by almost 10,000 fans. That classic stands on its own as probably the most exciting regular season game in NET history.
However, it was in the regular season. The Cyclones and Raiders were battling — as it turned out — not only to keep their seasons alive, but for home-field advantage against Christian Academy of Knoxville in the Class 3A state semifinals. CAK had its own memorable battle, edging Alcoa, 38-36.
When Elizabethton and North met in the regular season, the Cyclones owned the first half. However, a Kairi Thompson kickoff return for a touchdown changed everything, and the Cyclones eventually clawed their way out a 23-21 decision.
This time, it was North that drew first blood. And the way the Raiders scored, completely out of their comfort zone, seemed to signal this was not going to be your average high school contest.
Quarterback Cory Rowe, who apparently has a master’s degree in running the wing-T, lofted a nice toss to big Jon Michael Kilgore on fourth-and-15 from the Elizabethton 28 for a touchdown.
It took the Cyclones only five plays and 1:10 to answer. Game on. Big time.
Throughout the course of the game, the Cyclones crunched North’s defense with a running game that looked a little like the old John Riggins days with the Washington Redskins. Ethan Thomas played the role of Riggins while Terrence Turner starred as Joe Washington.
No matter what North did, no matter how many Raiders were stuffed in the box, Elizabethton just executed its basic running plays and chewed up the yardage.
Meanwhile, Rowe was either following his fullback into a scrum for five yards a pop, or using his invisibility cloak — at least that’s how Elizabethton defenders seemed to respond to him at times — to run away for double-digit gains.
After the push and shove of nearly four quarters, Thomas seemed to finally solve the issue with an 86-yard run to paydirt. With just 3:39 left, it was 35-20 and game over. North fans streamed for the exits.
But Rowe and Thompson basically said, “Not so fast, my friends.”
It may be an odd thing to say, but in hindsight the 86-yard quick score kept North’s chances alive.
“Going up 15 points with 3½ minutes left, I think it’s just human nature to let off the gas a little bit,” said Witten. “But I don’t think you can ever be comfortable against a kid like Cory Rowe.”
The Raiders’ senior would finish the game with 322 yards of total offense. And over the next 11 plays after Thomas’ touchdown — with an onside-kick recovery sprinkled in-between — Rowe and Thompson alternated nine times carrying the Raiders to within two points.
At that moment, with 44.9 seconds left, the Raiders still needed a 2-point conversion. All eyes were on Rowe, or they should have been, and yet he somehow trotted untouched into the end zone to tie the game.
Freeze that moment for just a second, because it stayed in Elizabethton’s minds for the overtime period. Rowe tried to take things into his own hands in overtime, using the “bull run” for five yards on first down.
But on third down, Rowe was met by a sea of Cyclones’ defenders. This time, they targeted him, and it turned out to be a game-winning effort.
Elizabethton had made a personnel change prior to starting the overtime period. The Cyclones got a little bigger with five linemen and three linebackers.
“We put an extra linebacker in and took a safety out,” said Cyclones’ head coach Shawn Witten. “We were in a little better position to play overtime defense. But it was just a matter of guys breaking through. Jacob Woodby made the big stick, but we made three good plays.”
Honestly speaking, North should have gone for a touchdown on fourth down. Elizabethon’s defense was tired, and was having trouble running down Thompson or Rowe on the edges. A field goal attempt was almost like a surrender because North’s defense was not going to stop a pounding, thumping head-banging offensive line followed by a pounding, thumping, head-banging Ethan Thomas.
When the dust settled after Caleb Bailey’s 1-yard quarterback sneak for the game-winning touchdown in a 41-38 decision, there was joy in Cyclone City and tears in Raider Country.
But the Raiders can’t hang their heads for long. Head coach Robbie Norris is one of the area’s best. He’s a superb strategist with the wing-T, and he’s a top-notch motivator.
Norris knew what he had in Rowe, and rode that pony to within a sniff (2011) and a scratch (2012) of the state semifinals.
“Both teams battled and the kids left everything on the field,” said Witten.
However, Witten deserves credit, too. Witten said it was all about the players Friday night, and to an extent it’s true.
However, Witten has built a state-title threat by going outside of his comfort zone and playing grass-roots football. Witten knew what he had in Thomas, Turner, Moore, and a defense-splitting offensive line — not to mention a quarterback who seems to get better every game.
“A lot of the credit for this win goes to Caleb Bailey, the composure and poise he showed,” said Witten. “Sometimes kids have a knack for making the big play.”
And for the third time in four years, Elizabethton is within a scratch and a sniff of a state championship game.