If someone said prior to Friday’s football game that Greeneville would gain over 100 yards more than Elizabethton, score three touchdowns of over 50 yards, and limit Parker Hughes and Bryson Rollins to a combined total of 201 yards, it might have been hard to imagine the Cyclones winning.
Greeneville also took two second-half leads, and Elizabethton had a game-changing second- half turnover when it appeared to be driving for a controlling score.
But even though all of those things look like they would have added up to a Greeneville victory, the Cyclones advanced to the Class 4A state semifinals because of their championship mettle.
It was Elizabethton’s response to Greeneville’s three huge plays that kept the Cyclones’ in the hunt for a second straight state title with a 24-20 victory.
“When the season is over, that ought to be a defining moment,” Cyclones’ head coach Shawn Witten said.
The spirited and resilient response to difficult situations is something the Cyclones began building in 2019. It started in baby steps with a tough 28-20 win over Science Hill, but began its formative years with the fourth-quarter double-pick-six win over William Blount later that season.
Then it reached maturity when Jaxton Holly’s game-winning field goal capped a stirring come-from-behind 24-21 win over Greeneville two weeks after the Blount game.
A second win over the Greene Devils in the quarterfinals, again coming back from a two-touchdown deficit, provided the needed momentum to chase down the elusive gold ball for the first time in 81 years.
The Cyclones’ championship pedigree showed up again this year in a 23-21 win over Daniel Boone, where Parker Hughes blocked the potential game-winning field goal in the final minute.
In Friday’s game, the Cyclones once again called on their settled history against the Greene Devils.
Playing it close to the vest, the Cyclones didn’t really stress the Greeneville defense in the first half. Elizabethton could have gone up two scores, but threw an interception at the goal line late in the first half. On the next play, Gudger’s 98-yard touchdown bolt completely changed the tenor of the contest.
But Elizabethton responded in a title-worthy manner. With three minutes left before halftime, the Cyclones drove from their own 27 to the Greeneville 14. They took a shot at the end zone and then settled for Sean Smithdeal’s well-struck and pristinely accurate 31-yard field goal.
After stopping Greeneville on its first possession of the second half — another important sign of a seasoned team — the Cyclones uncharacteristically fumbled after driving into Greene Devils’ territory. One play later, Greeneville put together a 53-yard touchdown pass.
Once again the Cyclones showed their true colors. They answered the score with a 53-yard touchdown drive to retake the lead at 17-13.
On the next play from scrimmage, Gudger struck again. This play showcased not only his speed, but also his running back ability. He got to the edge, planted a foot, and exploded to the end zone for a 75-yard score.
At this point, Elizabethton’s title hopes appeared to be in serious jeopardy. In two snaps of the football, Greeneville had covered 128 yards and scored twice.
But the Cyclones responded again. They got a 34-yard pass from Bryson Rollins to Jake Roberts, and capped the drive with a tough seven-yard scoring run from Rollins.
But the question remained: Could the Cyclones stop the Greeneville offense? The Greene Devils got two first downs and appeared to be on their way.
But in four plays, the Cyclones stood their ground. They deflected a pass, stuffed Gudger at the line of scrimmage, and gang tackled a short pass to the sideline for no gain.
Timeout Greeneville. Fourth down.
It was pretty clear this could be the game’s deciding play. By calling timeout, the Greene Devils left themselves with only one — meaning the Cyclones would need just one first down to basically run out the clock if they got the ball back.
Hughes made the game-sealing play with an interception, and once again the Cyclones stood strong when they needed it. Hughes capped things off with a third-down run to secure the first down his team needed.
What happens from here remains to be seen. It’s a new challenge this week with a long road trip to Nolensville for a rematch of last year’s state semifinals.