Elizabethton’s Ethan Thomas rushed for 214 yards and two touchdowns Friday night at Science Hill, but came up about a yard and a half short of what would’ve been a stunning Cyclones victory.
Science Hill junior quarterback Malik McGue rushed for122 yards and two TDs and passed for 231 yards and two TDs, which were just enough to help the Hilltoppers hold off Elizabethton for a 40-35 victory at Kermit Tipton Stadium.
McGue’s 53-yard TD pass to Malik Stephens stretched Science Hill’s lead to 40-28 with 4:35 remaining. And Science Hill (1-0) got the ball back on downs at the Elizabethton 39-yard line with 3:42 left.
But an ugly possession that included an incomplete pass helped the Cyclones (1-1) get the ball back with 2:19 to go at their 35.
And with Hilltoppers fans already heading for the exits, Elizabethton seized the moment. Caleb Bailey connected with Isaiah Clark for a 25-yard TD pass with 40 seconds left, and the Cyclones recovered the ensuing onside kick at the Science Hill 36 with 36 seconds left.
A 17-yard run by Bailey and a late hit advanced the ball to the Science Hill 9. Elizabethton was out of timeouts, and a 6-yard Bailey run and a spike to stop the clock gave the Cyclones the ball at the Science Hill 3 with 7.1 seconds to go.
Bailey handed off to the 6-foot-1, 215-pound Thomas, who, as he’d done throughout the three-hour, 10-minute slugfest, pushed the pile for a yard or two.
But there were too many ‘Toppers apparently just as hungry for victory. A pass play would’ve likely given the Cyclones another snap, but no one in the stadium was second-guessing Shawn Witten’s decision to give the ball to Thomas.
“We gave the ball to our best player right there and we just came up an inch short,” Witten said. “When you’ve got a kid like Ethan you’ve got to give him the ball there. … It’s just too iffy to pass it … and there’s not a lot of room to throw it. … You give it to your best player and let the chips fall where they may.”
While Thomas thundered through the ‘Toppers, McGue struck like lightning flashes on the hot, humid night. His 48-yard TD run gave Science Hill a 14-7 lead with 10:57 left in the first half. He bolted up the middle before quickly cutting to his right and outrunning a defender with an angle up the right sideline.
Six of McGue’s 18 carries went for at least 12 yards. His 1-yard TD made it 28-14 with 5:55 left in the third quarter, and he set it up by buying time and completing a 60-yard pass to Jordan Holly.
McGue threw a 43-yard TD pass to Mikey White for the game’s first score, and a 57-yard pass that Elijah Mathes took to the 2-yard line set up Chance Pierce’s 2-yard TD run.
It was no secret that McGue could run, and apparently he was confident he could hurt the Cyclones with his arm.
“I worked on it all summer, so I expected to come out here and do that,” he said. “And my receivers are great getting open when I scramble – getting in open space. So I was thankful for that.”
McGue said he thought the Hilltoppers might’ve let down after going up 40-28.
“The mentality on the sideline was kind of okay, the game’s over, you know,” McGue said. “But they kept fighting. They’re a great team. They gave us a battle, and that’s what we need for a first game. …
“(Thomas) is phenomenal. He has a bright future if he stays healthy and everything. And they have a great team and a great line.”
Science Hill coach Stacy Carter wasn’t impressed with his play-calling on what could’ve been the fatal series late in the game.
“Run clock, right Coop,” he said to linebackers coach Doug Cooper as they passed on the field shortly after the shootout’s conclusion. “They played tough and we should’ve run clock that last series, which is my fought. We thought we had them in something else, and it didn’t work out for us. …
“We had a good run on first down. We should’ve probably kept pounding right there. I pretty much let them back in it. But our kids stepped up. They grew up and made the plays and got us out of it.”
Science Hill seemed to have the Cyclones on the ropes much of the evening. The Hilltoppers were up 21-7 early, but Elizabethon answered with a 15-play, 80-yard drive – a march that lasted 5:52 and was capped by Bailey’s accurate 20-yard pass to Markus Olds in the back of the end zone with 32 seconds left in the first half.
Science Hill also led 34-21 and had the ball in Elizabethton territory midway through the fourth quarter, but the Cyclones Austin DePew recovered a fumbled and returned it to the Cyclones 30 with 6:14 remaining.
Five plays later, Thomas scored from 48 yards out to cut Science Hill’s advantage to 34-28.
Another Science Hill fumble set up Elizabethton’s first touchdown by giving the Cyclones possession at the Science Hill 15. The short drive was capped by a 5-yard toss sweep that Thomas took just inside the right pylon to tie the score at 7 with 3:13 left in the first quarter.
Elizabethton rushed 66 times for 371 yards. Jeremiah Turner rushed eight times for 47 yards and a TD for the Cyclones, who surely had the ball 75-80 percent of the game.
So it was easy to envision a 3-yard game-winning TD run on the game’s final play.
“Our defense was gassed,” McGue said. “We had about five players that cramped up. … I’m glad to see players like Gad Nagba – they fought through the cramps. They kept playing the whole game.”
Along with delivering some hard hits, Nagba rushed for a 14-yard TD that put Science Hill ahead 34-21 with 8:12 left.
Pierce rushed nine times for 60 yards. Stephens had two catches for 71 yards. Chad Backus had a handful of tackles behind the line of scrimmage for the ‘Toppers, and sophomore kicker Adam Moorleghen produced five touchbacks on kickoffs.
Elizabethton hosts Sullivan East on Friday, when Science Hill hosts David Crockett (2-0) for homecoming.