KINGSPORT — When it got right down to it, Elizabethton simply wasn’t willing to surrender its place atop the Three Rivers Conference.
Sullivan South crushed all league foes heading into Friday night’s game, but the Cyclones proved to be a beast with a little more fang.
Jeremiah Turner got more wide open than a sailboat in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean and caught a 12-yard touchdown pass from Caleb Bailey with 1:17 left in the game, giving the Cyclones a 28-27 victory.
It was the second straight Three Rivers championship for the Cyclones, who have won 14 consecutive league games. They finished 6-0 this year, and are 9-1 overall.
“This was probably one of the biggest wins in program history,” said Cyclones’ head coach Shawn Witten.
South, in its first season in Class AA, fell to 5-1 in league play and 9-1 overall.
The game came down the final few minutes. Elizabethton started the game-winning drive at its 41-yard line, and used six running plays to set up a first-and-10 at South’s 14.
Bailey was tackled for a 4-yard loss, but South jumped offsides on the next play. Ethan Thomas was then stopped for just one yard, and the Cyclones called timeout.
The third-and-eight play they came back with was a dandy. They slipped Turner out of the backfield on a wheel route and nobody went with him.
“Their cornerback had been coming in all night,” said Bailey. “We thought if we sent Isaiah (Clark) in motion, we would have that side clear.
“When I saw how wide open (Turner) was, I got a little nervous. I knew I just had to make the pass catchable.”
Said Turner, “Caleb is an excellent player. We just kept our composure.”
South coach Sam Haynie said, “That was a heck of a play call they made. But our kids played hard, and I’m proud of what they did.”
There was still work to do. Place-kicker Logan Birchfield had to convert the extra point. He was riding a streak of 56 consecutive extra points, and this one got a little tougher because of an illegal procedure penalty.
Like clockwork, Birchfield drilled the kick anyway. His streak of 57 is the fourth longest in state history.
South still had time to move the ball down the field for a potential winning score. Dylan Wieger’s long pass attempt on second down was nearly intercepted, and then Cyclones’ linebacker Jacob Woodby made the defensive play of the night. He sacked Wieger for a six-yard loss to force a fourth-and-16 situation.
“Coach told me to play soft in the middle and spy the quarterback,” said Woodby. “When I saw a chance, I went for it. It was wide open.”
Said Witten, “That was just the finishing touch, a senior stepping up and making a play.”
On fourth down, Wieger scrambled but came up one yard short with 26 seconds left.
It was an inspiring effort by Bailey. He carried 19 times and gained 28 yards, but the effectiveness of that tough yardage can only be measured in the final score. Bailey had two 1-yard touchdown runs.
Also, Bailey had one of the best passing games of his career. He connected on 5 of 7 tosses for 95 yards, making several tough throws on the move.
“These kids never got knocked down,” said Witten. “They kept battling.”
During the first half, Sullivan South and Wieger controlled the game. Wieger totaled 183 yards of offense in the first two quarters, and helped his team build a 19-7 lead with a 36-yard scoring strike to Evan Headrick and two short touchdown runs.
But something changed during the break. South got the ball first in the third quarter, but got stopped on downs.
Elizabethton took over and Thomas, held to 29 yards on 10 carries in the first half, came to life. He broke free for a 38-yard run, and a horse-collar tackle pushed the Cyclones to South’s 12-yard line. Eventually, Bailey used three straight quarterback sneaks to get a 1-yard touchdown to make it 19-14.
The Cyclones defense came to life again. It started doing a much better job of keeping tabs on Wieger when he looked to run.
“Coach (Stan) Ogg made an adjustment, and we weren’t dropping our linebackers nearly as fast,” said Witten. “We weren’t trying to get out in space. We’re lucky we’ve got a guy like Coach Ogg on our side.”
After a South punt, the Cyclones fed Thomas again. He had gains of 15 and 16 yards, and then Markus Olds made the catch of the night. His diving reception was good enough for 28 yards and a first-and-goal at the 1-yard line.
On the first play of the fourth quarter, Thomas bulled ahead to give the Cyclones a 21-19 edge. Thomas finished with 133 yards on 21 carries.
“They popped him pretty good in the first half,” said Witten. “But Ethan has never let us down. In big games, he continues to step up.”
The Cyclones made a nice offensive adjustment as well, using a wing back to set the edge and allow Thomas to break off some big runs.
South finally got its offense in gear after falling behind. Wieger hit four passes on a 69-yard drive, including a 16-yard connection to Evan Headrick on fourth and 11 for the touchdown. South lined up to kick, but after a penalty decided to go for a 2-point conversion and Wieger hit Josh Booker in the back of the end zone to make it 27-21.
The problem? South left the Cyclones 5:47 on the clock.
Wieger finished with 319 yards of total offense. He was 17 of 23 passing for 227 yards, and showed off a dandy arm by making several throws right on target despite throwing on the run or back across his body.
Wieger carried 21 times for 92 yards. Blake Christian added 68 yards on 10 carries for the Rebels.