ELIZABETHTON — If football was only about tackling, Elizabethton might have lost Friday night.
Fortunately for the Cyclones, Huntsville Scott had it’s own tough tackling assignment: Ethan Thomas.
The junior running back did 199 yards worth of damage on 24 carries, scoring three touchdowns to lift Elizabethton to a very hard-fought 27-20 win over the Highlanders in the first round of the TSSAA Class 4A playoffs Friday night at Rider Field.
Thomas’ effort pushed him over 4,000 yards rushing for his career. His total stands at 4,086.
Elizabethton (10-1) also clinched a 10-win season, and earned a trip to undefeated Greeneville next week. The Greene Devils took it fairly easy on Grainger, winning 51-0.
It wasn’t nearly that easy for the Cyclones as the Highlanders (7-4) were tougher than Elizabethton expected.
“They came out ready, and we came out flat,” said Thomas. “We just had to come together.”
Cyclones’ head coach Shawn Witten said it was survive and advance.
“We’re lucky to be moving on,” he said.
It took Elizabethton most of three quarters to figure out how to tackle Scott quarterback Jake Phillips. On the first drive of the second half, Phillips literally took five shotgun snaps in six plays and basically ran straight ahead for a 66-yard drive that tied the game at 14-14. He scored on a 3-yard run.
“We had a hard time tackling him,” said Witten. “The defense looked out of sync, and we were arm tackling. It wasn’t pretty at all, but we made plays when we needed to make them.”
That was especially true late in the third quarter, when Elizabethton was forced to punt with the game tied. Caleb Jones delivered a beauty of a punt, a 44-yarder that came to rest on Scott’s 4-yard line.
On the next two plays, the Cyclones finally stopped Phillips. Then on third down and 10, Christian Glover intercepted a deep pass attempt by Phillips at Scott’s 31-yard line.
It was the second turnover for Scott, with the first one setting up Elizabethton’s second touchdown.
“I thought the two turnovers were the biggest plays of the game,” said Witten.
After Glover’s pick, Elizabethton gave the ball to Thomas, and he went 4, 6, 2, and 9 yards to put the ball at the 10-yard line. Bailey ran for 1 and 7 yards before Thomas bulled into the end from two yards out to make it 21-14.
On the next series, the Cyclones got after Phillips again. He ran for 11 yards, but then was held to back-to-back gains of one yard before getting sacked for a 10-yard loss on third down.
Following the punt, the Cyclones went on a game-draining 14-play 79-yard drive. On fourth and one from Scott’s 4-yard line, Thomas again powered into the end zone for what appeared to be the game-clinching score.
On the extra-point attempt, a low snap dribbled back to holder Caleb Bailey. Kicker Logan Birchfield didn’t get a clean sweep at it, and his streak of consecutive extra points came to an end at 60 — the third-longest in state history.
The Highlanders weren’t done. Phillips was hemmed up in the backfield on third and 11, but broke free and raced down the sideline. The 48-yard scamper set up first-and-goal at the 3, and he later muscled into the end zone.
Phillips finished with 181 yards on 22 carries. He was 5 of 12 passing for 58 yards.
But the Cyclones made another big play. Glover blocked the extra point to maintain a seven-point Cyclones’ advantage.
With 4:13 left in the game, Scott chose not to go for a traditional onside kick. The line-drive effort went out of bounds.
On third and 1 at the Cyclones’ 44, Thomas broke through for a 35-yard gain to seal the outcome.
Glover carried nine times on the final two drives, and finished with 56 yards rushing.
Bailey had yet another standout effort behind center. The senior rushed 10 times for 34 yards, and once again came through with an impressive passing effort. He connected on 11 of 14 attempts for 93 yards with Markus Olds (64 yards) and Isaiah Clark (30 yards) each hauling in five receptions.
Also, Bailey had one of his best runs of the season in the second quarter. From 13 yards out, he cut, twisted, shifted, and then bulled his way into the end zone to put the Cyclones ahead 14-7.
Justin King had Scott’s first touchdown, a 3-yard run in the second quarter.
Next up for the Cyclones is a major challenge. It’s No. 2 in the state (Greeneville) versus No. 3, but the Cyclones are an underdog.
“We can do anything we set our minds to,” said Thomas. “Just don’t stop believing.”
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