SEVIERVILLE – Science Hill’s football season came to a screeching halt Friday.
Sevier County scored touchdowns on each of its first eight drives, Jesse Adams returned an interception 48 yards for a TD and the Smoky Bears bolted to a 63-20 victory in the second round of the TSSAA Class 6A playoffs at Burchfield Stadium.
How bad were things for the Hilltoppers, who ended the season at 9-3? They had as much difficulty completing shotgun snaps as Sevier County had completing passes.
The Smoky Bears (11-1), who will visit Maryville on Friday, got 101 yards rushing and three TDs from Dorian Banks and 211 yards passing from Luke Manning, who was 10-of-13 passing.
A Hilltoppers defense which had been hit and miss much of the season with linebackers Gad Nagba and Trey Sutton was missing without them. Nagba, a Liberian native who’s lived in Johnson City since the third grade, had to go to Memphis this week due to a snag with his U.S. citizenship, and didn’t arrive until late in the third quarter when Science Hill was on the thin side of a 63-14 scoreboard.
Sutton, the Hilltoppers’ most productive defender in a win at Dobyns-Bennett two weeks ago, didn’t play after suffering a concussion in a first-round playoff win against Farragut last week.
But it’s hard to say they would’ve made enough difference to even keep Science Hill competitive on this particular rainy night against the fired-up, well-coached Smoky Bears, who also got the best of Science Hill in an offseason scrimmage. Hilltoppers quarterback Malik McGue struggled passing (1 of 10, two interceptions) and mishandled several snaps. And a couple of his long passes that should’ve been completed were dropped.
“They’re a great football team and do some great things,” Science Hill coach Stacy Carter said. “And we just made a lot of mistakes. I mean, we did a lot of things wrong. We had snaps all over the place. We did things that were uncharacteristic. We didn’t make plays when we had to. We had drops and threw interceptions, which we hadn’t done all year.
“I mean, there’s just a lot of things that we did. And a lot of it was because we played a good team, and some of it was self-induced, of course.”
Science Hill’s night was summed up on successive plays in the second quarter. McGue (13 carries, 70 yards, one TD) rushed for 21 yards on third-and-20, only to throw an interception on the next play that Jesse Adams returned 48 yards for a touchdown. Adams also intercepted a pass in the third quarter, which he returned 62 yards to the Science Hill 18.
Adams said Sevier County’s defense prepared this week as if it was bouncing back from a loss after last week’s 56-42 win against Cookeville.
“We had a hard week of practice this week,” Adams said. “We had a bad taste in our mouth from the defensive side of it with the week before.”
Science Hill gave the Smoky Bears possession with turnovers on its end of the field three times, including a fumble Sevier County recovered at the Science Hill 2-yard line with 60 seconds left in the half. Zach Sauls (six carries, 59 yards, two TDs) scored on the next play and Paul Butuza’s PAT made it 56-7 with 56 seconds left in the first half.
Connor Bailey had seven carries for 67 yards for Sevier County, which finished with 438 yards on 42 plays.
“Our offense executed extremely well,” Sevier County coach Steve Brewer said. “I’m real pleased with our offense, but I tell you, I think the story for us was how our defense played the first half, holding a very talented Science Hill team to seven points. I mean, that was just a great effort.
“The last thing we said was, ‘This game’s gonna come down to how bad do we want it,’ and I thought our defense played with that kind of mindset.”
The ‘Toppers got a 20-yard TD run from Elijah Mathes and a 1-yard score from Mikey White with to conclude the scoring.
The thin silver lining included senior running backs Chance Pierce and Addison Adams. The bruising Adams consistently moved the pile while tallying 114 yards on nine carries. Pierce had 14 carries for 91 yards, and unofficially finished the season with 1,071 yards.
Carter commended his senior backs and senior contributors such as Aaron Adams, Koby Franklin, Cory Johnson, Demetri Kalogeros, Ethan Morelock, Tucker McPherson, Eli Parsons and Isaac Story. After Science Hill went a decade without a playoff victory, the senior class won a playoff game in two of its final three seasons.
“We got over some big hurdles this year,” Carter said. “The first conference championship in a long time, beating Dobyns-Bennett. … We’ve got a lot of people back next year, so we’re looking forward to it.”